Monday, July 25, 2011

The Rain Ascends by Joy Kogawa

The Rain Ascends by Joy Kogawa is the literary equivalent of trying to get a straight answer from a witch doctor.

If you've read the About Me page on my blog, you'll know that I expressed concern about only reviewing books I was inclined to enjoy. Well, I guess I didn't need worry. I did not enjoy this book at all but I read it all the way through. In past years I would have quickly deemed it "not to my taste" and tossed it aside. But I slogged through The Rain Acsends because I want to discuss what I hate and why just as much as what I love.

First of all, I have to acknowledge that this book deals with some heavy subject matter: pedophilia, abortion, incest. I feel that there is a general tendency to favour books that engage difficult and sometimes taboo subjects, even when quality is distinctly lacking. Subjects that are "safe" are deemed wimpy and scorned outright, especially by literary fiction readers. These are the sorts of people that when you say, "This book deals with pedophilia in the Church", they will bob their heads in unison, glass of Pinot Nior in hand, and reply in a knowing voice, "Hmmmm, yes, yes, quite." To be honest, I'm probably one these drones myself. What I don't agree with, however, is the automatic brownie points authors get for simply using these topics. Just because someone writes about abortion doesn't mean that it will be a courageous masterpiece by default. And moreover, if they do choose to write about abortion, they better bring their A game. Treacherous subjects require skillful footing and, in my opinion, Kogawa traverses the slippery terrain like an oiled hippo, falling deeper and deeper into gaudy sentiment.

Millicent, the main character, doesn't know her father, a high-ranking clergyman of the Church of England, used to molest young boys. Told in Millicent's voice, the narrative structure is fractured as Kogawa moves the reader through different time periods and Millicent's different states of understanding. Millicent's sister in law, Eleanor, is the main vehicle for justice in the novel and the book begins with Eleanor reprimanding Millicent for not confronting her father about his indecency. This carries on FOR THE WHOLE BOOK and Millicent weakly buckles under Eleanor's screechingly moralistic presence again and again. She often speaks indirectly to Eleanor and also to a multitude of spirits, goddesses and entities. Millicent seems to spend more time talking to questionable beings from an alternate universe, or to someone when they aren't there, than she does talking to real people.

This brings me to another point: sop. The sheer soppiness of this novel is my number one annoyance. But I can go further.

I used to go to Church every Sunday with my friend's family when I was about 9. My sole reason for attending was to hustle the Church out of their supply of Scotch Mints. I can remember the day when I actually began to listen to what the Minister was saying and I remember getting very angry. I felt as if I were being told what to do and yet, I didn't understand what was being asked of me. Only as I've gotten older have I begun to realize why I felt such a strong reaction; it was the language. Everything seemed to be a metaphor for something else and it was impossible for me to come to any logical conclusions. Kogawa's writing, intentionally perhaps, reads like a sermon. The Rain Ascends is so mired in metaphor, the true gravity of the situation is unable to surface. The plot is not the issue; in fact, I find the idea to be compelling. But Kogawa obscures the plot line with such unnecessary imagery and language that I would go so far to say that it felt like her writing insulted the complexity and gravity of child abuse by subjecting it to a world of metaphor and deferred meaning. Here, Millicent rhetorically addresses her father, denouncing him for his misdeeds:
You took the pastel shadings of their dreams and splashed crimson and dung across the canvas of their innocent days. You swooped upon the sheltered nests of infant birds, their beaks open, their heads awkwardly angled upwards in a trust as large as the sky. With your unseeing hunger, you plucked the trust from their upturned faces and fed yourself till you could eat no more.
There is nothing to hold on to here, everything is a signifier of something else. I won't ever be able to get behind this type of language, especially when it's used to describe horrific situations. In the book, 300 children were raped by Millicent's father and Kogawa chooses to spend her time talking about the Goddess of Mercy, the Maker of Hope, the great Shadow Boxer and the Father of Lies. What does this mean? Who are these people? It's like asking for a glass of wine at a restaurant and the waiter reciting a lengthy poem about the Goddess of the Grape instead. Except, we are talking about child molestation, which changes this scenario from confusing to enraging.

I am not a religious person and I'm sure my reading of this book would have been drastically different if I were. I also know that Kogawa is undoubtedly skilled at her craft. But I would suggest that true discussion can only begin when truth is confronted, not obscured.

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