Wednesday, October 31, 2007



D. H. Melhem, STIGMA & THE CAVE (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2007)

This is a pair of short novels comprising the second and third parts of a trilogy called, collectively, Patrimonies. The first part of this trilogy. which is not being reviewed here, is called Blight, a delightful and sexy little fantasy involving a bunch of erotic little vegetable people and the moral quandary and sexual adventures they put the gentleman through on whose little property they grew. This was published in 1995 by Riverrun Press in New York and Calder Publications in London.

Before us now is a very handsome volume published this year by Syracuse University Press containing two short novels (or novellas? I am not sure of the difference), also fantasies with a great deal of sexual, psychological, sociological and political content.

The first novel, Stigma, is about a family caught up in a ploy by a future (fairly logically predicted American (the author has through the magic of language and tone created a place that could be both 21st Century America and any place and any time) government to cope with problems set up by its Orwellian policy of endless war. They have been selected as “volunteers” to leave their home for a period of several years to work in the war effort. The couple, Joseph (think Kafka’s “J” or “Joseph K”) and Serafina wind up in a very concentration camp setting where they are separated and made to room (or share cells) with other partners, and are set to work on something like instruments of germ warfare. They are repeatedly told they are honored by this situation and had better acquiesce. The couple are rather resistant (hence a story) while their new partners are more complacent, somewhat liking the relief from more normal responsibilities and the apparent novelty of new sexual opportunities as clients of the funhouse mirror image of the “military-industrial complex”, or its progeny the “prison-industrial complex” well represented by the emotionally entangled camp directors, General Gutsby and Mr. Blossom, who heads the Blossom Foundation to Study War. “Our goal of global peace, he tells the new recruits, “is in sight. We need your absolute cooperation. We have a Government of Rules, not of men and women. And the Rule of Rules is TRUST US.” The couple has two sons, the younger sent to an orphanage, and the elder sent to a training camp where he learns how to kill for the regime, and signs his occasional brief missives to his parents “Hail to our country.” The plight of this family is all too reminiscent of the plight of the family in Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America about a New Jersey Jewish family caught up in a 1940’s America in which Charles Lindbergh, rather than Franklin Roosevelt, is President. They also have a gung ho son who is all too happy to be Americanized in a program run by a “patriotic” rabbi.

In spite of her use of the fable as the style of her fiction, which brings her close to Kafka, and the grim, fascistic worlds with which she surrounds and entraps her characters, which remind one of Orwell’s 1984, the novelist she most resembles is Roth. Melhem, like Roth, is concerned with the family; with familiar relationships positive and negative; with marriage—its strengths and weaknesses. The characters of all three of these little novels are members of families (in the case of the protagonist of the first novel, Blight, a widower with an estranged grown son with a family of his own). Melhem is a first class psychologist and maybe even a better sexologist. And she can sure tell a story. Her characters are the characters of fable—necessarily consisting of a certain unreality (they are, after all, intentionally prototypical)—but she manages to seduce the reader into a full identification with them, with their suffering, with their adventures. This book is a page turner. If the characters, the landscapes, the action, in these novels lack the development expected in the classic novel, it is by design. Melhem obviously has the talent.

The second part of the book under consideration, The Cave, is about extended families intending to escape impending nuclear holocaust by taking shelter in a cave. Again, page-turning drama and social and sexual stresses and traumas and sharp political analysis. This reader’s ability, here, to suspend disbelief, aside from the demands already necessitated by the fable genre, was at times a bit too much stretched; though this did not much diminish overall enjoyment. Melhem is a very good writer. She is a poet of canny observation and humane truth, a scholar and literary biographer, a political activist, and a fabulist who knows how to seduce a reader.

--Donald Lev
Editor, Home Planet News

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