by Kevin Oderman
Etruscan Press, 280 pp.
Kevin Oderman’s melancholy White Vespa begins in italics, as a journal entry dated “7 Sept.” that ends with the line, “I am exhausted from talking to people who aren’t here, to Anne and to Jim, and to faces that return to me like reflections on gliding water, the faces of my long ago wife and lost son.” This line is a clue to the structure of the novel, which is itself a glittering reflection of the Greek Dodecanese islands and American expatriates who spend a summer on Symi colliding with their long ago grief. Self-exiled college professor Myles Toomey lives anesthetized by the grief of a disappeared son and disrupted marriage, then begins to awake after meeting Anne, herself scarred by a childhood haunted by her sleazy brother Paul, who spends his time burning through the family inheritance and seducing women. Ultimately, White Vespa traces two converging paths of redemption, as Myles and Anne seek ways to move beyond distant pain or, at least, figure out how to function in the long shadow of their pasts. At heart, the novel is also a revenge tragedy, and I don’t use that last term lightly.
In writing his second novel, Oderman has been visited by Melpomene. Just as the ancient Greeks revered tragedy as perhaps the finest art form, in White Vespa Oderman reflects a modern aesthetic of the form. Consider a few elements:
1) Myles as the tragic hero, with a hamartia centered around his constant moody photography, pictures of drowned goats and mysterious leaping women, on his inability to ever fully tune the focus of his past and present.
2) A double peripeteia – one now, one then – that mark the ways forward for Myles and Anne.
3) Suffering, plenty of it, rendered with the poetic starkness of Oderman’s prose:
He’d stood on top of a chair and shot straight down on her, the walls over the built-in divan provided the perspective, a sense of depth, as if, looking at the photo, you were looking into a hole. Anne was curled into the too-small rectangle of the divan, all in profile, eyes closed. Everywhere you could see her bones, the shape of the skeleton beneath her fine skin. More than anything it reminded Myles of other photographs he had seen, photographs of prehistoric pit burials.
4) And above all else, a refined sense of decorum, which is itself a sense of refinement, of what can and should be presented on stage, and what readers need to necessarily be shielded from: the pain and violence of the novel is always off-screen, relayed by characters long after the action has taken place.
It is this last element that had me thinking about Horace and Aristotle as I read White Vespa, as the novel is very much animated by violence, literal and emotional. Yet Oderman treats these violences with a careful hand, a turning away that allows the pathos to seep into the reader. Even the central wounding of Anne, an event that more than anything else precipitates the present action of the novel, is relayed instead of shown: demonstrating the tenet of decorum, Oderman has Anne describe the event to Myles instead of rendering the scene on the page.
Fair warning: I’m a bit of a structure geek, thinking progressively more and more in my own craft of writing about shape, and form, and the capacity to allow meaning to emerge as a function of both text and construction. I am an essayist, or so I claim, and therefore a practitioner of a genre that has been defined as necessarily wandering, recursive or, in the words of Scott Russell Sanders, “is like finding one’s way through a forest without being quite sure what game you are chasing, what landmark you are seeking.” And I recognize that my sudden departure from book review to a discussion of the nature of the essay appears as a significant deviation. Yet Oderman is himself an essayist, having won the Bakeless Prize for How Things Fit Together, a collection of essays that focuses at times on the construction of Stickley chairs and always on the carpentry of his own prose.
I am unsurprised, then, to find in White Vespa a concerted attention to the way the book fits together, and even a dedication to assemblage within the aesthetic of his main character, Myles:
The photographs were beautiful, but she wasn’t beautiful in them. The beauty was austere and a little terrible, and it had more to do with composition than with her face or the suave lines of her body in motion. But the beauty, such as it was, was hers, she’d made it, composed herself in the cramped space of the divan at only the lightest of suggestions from him.
Beauty lies in the composition of the body, here, and throughout the novel Myles frames images of the Greek islands in his viewfinder. He composes his world through the camera, seeking to bring order to his life’s chaos through the imposition of photographic structure.
Lately, I have found myself experiencing the same urge many contemporary poets seem to feel, constraining my writing within “rigid” forms which, counterintuitively, allow meaning to shine through in fresh, exciting ways, and also seeking out writers who seek to focus their own work within the confines of hard structure (like White Vespa). And just the other week, I argued with students in my advanced nonfiction class about the choice John D’Agata makes in including James Wright’s prose poem “May Morning” as part of his anthology The Next American Essay. How can D’Agata call this an essay? went the general strain of resistance in class. Truth be told, I’m not sure it’s quite fair to call a Petrarchan Sonnet, even one written in “prose,” an essay, but I catch the drifts of D’Agata and my own affection for structure. In the formal call and response of the octave and sestet, Wright creates a clarity of the passing seasons in “May Morning,” rendered poetically for sure, but rendered as truth. More importantly to me, that poetic evocation – what students described as the poem/essay “feeling true” – happens structurally. There is a turn in the sonnet form, and that turn allows the personification of winter to take on the force of Wright’s art.
In my own work, I have lately come to the adoption of non-literary structural elements drawn from science and textbooks as a means to shuttle my own experience into metaphorical valence. More generally, I’ve become enamored with the latent power of braided essays, and mosaic essays, and collage essays, and those sorts of fractured structures. My writing still wanders in the forest, but in structure I sweep away some of the breadcrumbs that typical narrative drive leaves behind. In those gaps, which are very much a function of hardened structural decisions, my essays leave space for the reader to create their own tendrils of meaning. Thus form, whether sonnet or mosaic or Greek tragedy, tightens narrative as a means to loosen the hegemony of authorial control. I still seek to control the mind of my readers – that is, after all, a control no writer ever wishes to cede – but I also seek to invite the mind into those gaps, to let the very shape of the words on the page gesture toward fulfillment.
Minding the gaps figures prominently in the effect of White Vespa. While the novel begins with a chapter of italics and continues with epistolary interruptions written by Myles, it also (obviously) has an apparent main line of non-italicized chapters. During a direct read, the function of the interplay between the two sorts of chapters needn’t be fully understood: the journal entries appear to fit in the arc of the novel. But, in fact, the way these chapters are put together fixes the present of the novel differently than a reader might imagine and, in so doing, radically alters the effect of the novel. The “action” of the novel, when we watch Myles and Anne, along with Paul, Jim, and Michael, interact on Symi, are in fact all backstory, prolepsis as the Greeks would say. The italicized portions of White Vespa occur between September 7 and October 2; the rest of the novel winds from June 8 to September 4.
The italics of White Vespa are, indeed, the present of the narrative moment, stretched across the entirety of the novel but occurring in the few weeks immediately after the apparent tragedy of August 27 and Myles’s subsequent departure from Symi. The novel takes place in that interim, during a period where Myles is left to again reconstruct his life in the aftermath. Or, rather, find himself largely incapable of doing so without help from Anne, who herself is stuck in her own aftermath until the aid of Myles. Consider decorum here, and that the effect of Oderman’s structure is to make all of the action off-screen, in a sense: the bulk of the novel is recollection, is processing, is Myles wondering how he will deal with what he faces. The direct action is small, more or less a single moment that releases Myles from himself.
In a very good way, White Vespa is a novel frozen and paralyzed. The stuckness of Myles is very much the center of the novel’s beauty, and Oderman relays his isolation and retreat, and his ultimate redemption, through the careful construction of the book. We read in the aftermath, filling in the gaps of the narrative that appear as the main narrative when, in truth, the paralysis of Myles is the central tension and hamartia of the tragic hero. White Vespa is all about the italics, and all about how the experiences that preceded the italics lead to the inevitable, almost-cathartic ending. Here, Oderman deviates notably from the tenets of Horace and Aristotle. The resolution of the novel is a recognition that resolution is impossible, and that in itself is where the grace of White Vespa becomes clearest and most authentic.
D’Agata, John. The Next American Essay. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2003.
Oderman, Kevin. How Things Fit Together. Hanover: U Press of New England, 2000.
Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.” Sewanee Review 96.4 (Fall 1988): 658-672.