Possessed by Shadows. Donigan Merritt. New York: Other Press, 2005. 239 pages. Hardcover. $22.00.
Some alpine climbs are so visionary that regardless of their success or failure, by expressing a concept worthy of realization or by posing a problem for future generations to solve, they deserve both attention and praise. Within the medium of words and narrative, Possessed by Shadows, a novel by Donigan Merritt, makes such a venture.
Although ultimately flawed, the book’s effort to bridge the genres of climbing and literary fiction represents a worthwhile and ambitious project that this reader hopes may inspire future attempts.
A graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop, Merritt comes from a writing school that applies its own minimalist, light-is-right style to language; the late Frank Conroy, Workshop director from 1987-2005, used to admonish his students that writing was like climbing a mountain: you couldn’t carry any extra baggage. Merritt’s spare and carefully constructed novel, about a woman dying of cancer who travels from California to the mountains of Slovakia to climb with her husband and to relive her past, reflects well on this tradition.
Taking as its central metaphor the Greek myth of Eurydice—the young bride hovering on the threshold between life and death (as the Rainer Maria Rilke epigraph describes, “already possessed by shadows”), who fades in the instant her husband turns to embrace her—the novel uses climbing to explore a multitude of liminal spaces: between life and death, action and philosophy, the personal and the political.
Likewise, it finds itself between audiences. At times it seems too basic for anyone who has ever tied into a rope, with its textbook-style explanations of Münter hitches and of common crag behavior—as the dying woman, Molly, has written in her diary about the first time she met her husband, “I assumed he was trying to pick me up, which is the principal reason men talk to women in climbing areas.” Other times, the novel’s matter-of-fact and often technical descriptions of climbing scenes risk boring a nonclimbing audience. Passages such as the following, “I liked the pitch. It has great holds, good pockets for the toes. It was slightly off vertical, a bit less than 90 degrees in most places. Near the top, the wall fell away to a featureless slab, but at an angle that made friction climbing possible,” read like informational, but unimaginative trip reports. Of course as a literary climbing novel, the text may be aiming for an impossible objective, or at least a “futuristic” one, to borrow a familiar term from climbing magazines, and its achievement may await both new literary techniques and an expanded public of people who read good books—and who climb—two activities that are still less than mainstream.
Yet if the book’s laudable failure to close the gap between genres leaves the reader with a sense of void, it’s within that emptiness that lies a more profound, underlying problem: how to compose a compelling, meaningful aesthetic in a postmodern world that denies its inhabitants both mystery and hope, offering in exchange only images and shadows. The cipher-like characters chase ersatz objects of desire—climber x sleeps with climber y because y slept with z, and because x is in love with a, who is unattainable. Behind this incestuous dance, the unmitigated agony of thirty-three-old Molly, whose descent into illness will become a death without rebirth, loss without redemption, asks repeatedly the question of how she and how any of her fellow characters can assert their own existence and achieve their real desires.
Perhaps in complement, the flat, pseudo-Hemingway tone creates a limbo in which even the words themselves seem deliberately to avoid any form of soaring beauty, fulfillment or catharsis—“I ordered a beer and the waitress who brought it to me smiled at my accent. A prostitute asked in Slovak if she could join me and I let her. She asked if I spoke German. I used a candle on the table to light a cigarette for her. In Slovak, she asked if I liked her and I said no. She crushed out the cigarette as if it were my hand and left the restaurant.”
With such an emulative style, the language takes few risks; it remains as constrained by structure and rationality as the characters themselves, who, even in their sexual abandon lack convincing passion, and whose affairs, revealed one by one, fit into a far-too-elegant, almost mathematical design to be natural—just as their climbing is too perfectly heroic (particularly in the opening rescue scene) to be believable. (And here the reader makes a natural comparison to David Roberts’ Like Water and Like Wind, an alpine-climbing novella whose author is brave enough to portray the messiness of real human emotions, the inscrutability of desires, and the failure of heroism.)
And yet near the beginning of the story, Merritt has written two extraordinary sentences, which in themselves contain the entire novel—and beyond it, a whole universe, whose every gesture and word have been hollowed out, and whose hope of presence and transcendence becomes the most inconsolably haunting and beautiful shadow of all: “Molly stood near the rock and touched it with her hands. It looked like she was praying, but actually she only warmed her hands and recalled the corn kernel texture of the rough granite.”
Climbing, the novel seems to tell us, may be an illusory form of redemption and solace, and yet it is all that many of us ever find.