The Longest Chapter, Kassie Rose, NPR
Grief wants to know
May 5, 2012
I’m in awe of the last lines ofAnakana Schofield’s Malarky. They offer an affirmation of life, despite the overwhelming incoherence experienced in the previous pages. When I came to them, I felt a reward of powerful clarity, an illuminating a-ha that mentally swept me back through this uniquely told story of madness and grief with heightened comprehension. “It’s beautiful when it all makes sense, so it is. Occasionally it makes sense, just for a moment.”
Malarky contains 20 episodes that in another book would be called chapters. They are the remembered events playing out inside the mind of a grieving widow who’s suffering a mental maelstrom, as she seeks insight into her husband’s infidelity, her son’s homosexuality and events leading up to their deaths. Her name is Philomena, and she is our reckless, driven narrator occasionally referred to as “Our Woman,” a compelling and unforgettable Irish cattle farmer’s widow, who cleverly dominates the page and consumes us. When the book opens, she’s in counseling with Grief, the name she gives her therapist. Her remarks frighten Grief and concern Philomena’s friends because they’re filled with desires inappropriate for a widow. Her recollections are fragmented, and that’s the point, entering us intimately and insistently into her interior world that becomes, for us, an absorbing journey into a mind swinging capriciously under the influence of guilt, confusion and loss.
Here’s where it all starts. Early in her life, Our Woman witnessed her son, Jimmy, engaged in sex with a boy in the family barn. When years later, home from college, Jimmy comes out to his mother, she tells him to keep his homosexuality to himself and hide it from his father, that at family functions “for your father’s sake, you’ll be alone or with a girl.” On this visit, however, she witnesses her son in another homosexual act, this time in the farm field, and feels disgust. She also fears being humiliated in their community of rural Mayo County, Ireland: “He’s done for. He must be gone from this country, this country where there is no forgiveness for such a thing.” But Jimmy feels no fear and flaunts his sexuality before his parents, causing his father to cut him off financially. He joins the military in America and is deployed to Iraq and then Afghanistan. Meanwhile, in a pub, Philomena is confronted by a woman who confesses having an affair with her husband and gives outlandish, explicit details.
It’s enough to drive any woman to a divorce lawyer or to make her flee into obscurity. Philomena’s response, however, is a bizarre opposite to revenge and denial, a kind of obsessive understanding for the husband and son she loves that’s as imaginative as it is inconceivable. She seeks out sexual experiences for herself to mimic those brought into her consciousness not only by her husband but her son. The erotic scenes – and there are several — are more desperate than sensual. They are infused with dark and quirky humor yet underlying them, also, is a kind of sorrow.
Often, Philomena speaks with Grief. Often, she comments on being unhinged, lacking reason and common sense. I have to admit occasionally getting lost in the narrative thread because of how she remembers things, once finding myself seeking the logical time sequence concerning Jimmy’s death by going back through some episodes. I couldn’t figure out for a while whether he died before or after his father died. I assumed it was as a soldier in Afghanistan, but I wasn’t sure. Even so, I knew the answers were here, that my challenge had to do with the inventive storytelling in which you can miss things if you don’t pay attention, where one must surrender to the sifting of events in a mind that swings out of linear time. It’s why I was drawn to keep reading and not put the book down, to stay with the rhythm inside Philomena’s head and on par with her thread of logic, not with what I expected.
And so it gets back to those last lines. When we reach them, everything comes full circle, especially regarding something Philomena says in the first episode: “If you are a widow, be careful what you say. I think it’s why they started talking about Jimmy in the bank.” You won’t know what that bank reference means when you first read it, but you will, eventually, and it’s a stunning construct. Indeed, it all makes sense within this crazy-sad theater of a grieving mind that’s a forceful showcase for such things in life. Schofield’s brilliant storytelling in Malarky is among the most engaging I’ve ever encountered.