Reading with Five Senses: Untangling Reality from Fiction

BOOK REVIEW:

Jack Kerouac was a pioneer of the stream of consciousness style of writing, in which he ignored conventional forms and just put his scattered mêlée of thoughts on paper. In Under the Feet of Jesus, Helena Maria Viramontes combines Kerouac’s bold effervescence with unconventional tricks of writing, and seasons the resultant witches’ brew with a dash of her own creativity. Exotic and remarkable, one taste and I was struck by the oddest sensation that I was somehow watching an indie film in my mind. There aren’t monologues explaining a character’s reasoning or train of thought behind something. She doesn’t hand you answers on a gilded platter but laughingly holds them just above your reach while a broken-down projector streams her mental movie.

In her debut novel, she ruthlessly plucks you out of your seat and transports you into the center of her creation.  Instead of just visualizing a static, nonmoving frame, I can get a deeper image that resonates on different levels, and seems more like a memory planted in my brain. “The eucalyptus trees lined the dirt road like a row of thin dancing girls fanning their feathers. The breeze billowed her dress, and for a moment she held her elbows as she watched the mother swish the broom against the mentholated wind.” [18] Just two simple sentences, and yet I am there, watching. I’m huddled alongside them on the road, admiring the waiflike elegance of the eucalyptus trees. I watch them innocently seducing the wind, beckoning it forward to swirl and skip around the three of us and join them in their irreverent dance. Overwhelmed, I turn to Esperanza and mimic her childlike pose, grabbing my own elbows for comfort.  I am a moment suspended in time, tasting the cleansing purity of mint as it surrounds me in a visceral embrace.  It is with great reluctance I return to my chair, waiting enraptured for the next trip.

Although not incredibly well known, Viramontes is great at creating scenes and images that appeal to more than just one sense and immerse you into her story. As such, nontraditional would be a good word to describe this book. The jumbled and sometimes puzzling storytelling isn’t comparable to many works that are being read. One technique she employs is a unique introduction of characters. We get some physical description, a name here and there, and sometimes we are allowed a glimpse of their thoughts and emotions. But it is rare that we get all three, which makes it harder to form a concrete mental image of someone’s entire persona. These snatches and glimpses make the story more believable, because in real life one can’t simply look at a person and know their mind, life history, and entire physical appearance. So this erratic and somewhat convoluted presentation gives them the ability to change and evolve, and stops them from just being players in a one dimensional, predictable story.

Seemingly magical herself, she baits the reader by conjuring up entire worlds with very few words. When first introduced to the family in the car, the two figures in the front seat are referred to as “the man who was not her father,” and “the mother.” It is obviously a deliberate move on the part of the author, but nevertheless a little confusing. Is this introduction a way of creating a distance between the reader and the two characters? Does it symbolize the distance that Estrella, the protagonist, feels in respect to them? I found myself contemplating the relationship of these characters and speculating on how much insight I could get just based on their introduction. And given the disjointed, delightfully staccato literary style Viramontes’ employs, I never got any answers. She is one author that is not afraid to leave her readers guessing, refusing to box everything up into a tidy package.

One of the most interesting dynamics is that of the characters and the significance behind inanimate objects. When one character’s point of view segues into another’s, there isn’t a visible transition or link between the thoughts. A lot of times one will be in the middle of a thought, and the scene jumps around to another. Sometimes it reads like a movie transition, with both seeing an airplane, or something that serves as a possible connection. And to add to the chaos, there is a lot of personification. Inanimate objects seem to have motives and desires as strong and as inexplicable as those of the people. “Estrella remembered the mother trying to keep her awake, but the days were so hot, and the sun wanted her to sleep so badly.” (52) There is a playful, meandering tone that seems to wander in and out of different minds and different stories, and explore different avenues of storytelling. Like extras in a movie, the book will often touch upon the thoughts and expressions of background characters, who are there for a second and then don’t show up again.

The narrator is perhaps the trickiest apect of the book, because there is definitely not one in the conventional sense of the word. In fact there is seemingly no conceptual link between the disconnected passages. The bigger picture thus exists only as a figment of our own subjective consciousness. This makes the reading more difficult, but also gives readers an opportunity to think for themselves instead of having things told to them. We are challenged to be an active part of the story instead of passive bystanders watching the excitement.

There is a snarky and offbeat irony that is an integral part of the reading experience, one that dares you to pick up a copy and unravel it for yourself. The story precludes standard classification and is reminiscent of another notable Spanish work, “Pan’s Labyrinth,” in its exploration of reality versus fantasy. Using personification, reference to obscure magic, and dreamlike experiences, these lines are completely blurred.  However, the lack of a narrator serves to heighten the sense of reality, since in real life there is no narrator to neatly pick through the problems and illustrate a complete storyline. It is a risky and tumultuous read, and one unlike any other.

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