Some novels draw you in; Blue Field drags you under and keeps clamping down, an exercise in storytelling as centrifugal force. A good portion of Elise Levine’s first book in more than a decade takes place underwater, in pitch-dark depths illuminated only faintly by the helmet-mounted flashlight of its deep-diving protagonist. It’s as if the author were drawing a parallel between her choice of setting and the style she applies to it. The seal between form and content is airtight. The question of whether the experience is transporting or suffocating depends on a reader’s willingness to take a deep breath and follow her down.
Blue Field is narrated by Marilyn, a woman in her late 20s whose confident, alluring exterior betrays a whirlpool of insecurities and internalized resentments, all related via a third-person point of view that’s as intimate as an inner monologue (or even more so, as it suggests that we know her better than she knows herself). Marilyn’s self-lacerating streak runs deep, and as the book opens, she’s reeling from seeing both of her parents die in rapid succession – her mother from lung cancer, her father in a terrorist attack that places the action in a frame of arbitrary morbidity.
This one-two punch only sharpens the guilt and isolation that already lurk at the edges of Marilyn’s daily grind, and given her obsession with introspection, it makes perfect sense that she would embrace cave diving. It’s less a hobby than a high-stakes way of disconnecting from reality – an example of risk as its own reward. Marilyn also begins a relationship with her diving instructor, Rand, whose presence and personality are described in the same glancing, oblique detail as the submerged objects and creatures she encounters during her outings. He’s more like a specimen than a person, and the detachment is curious and provocative. What Marilyn perceives as her instructor-turned-lover’s mix of concern and condescension might look healthier or more understandable from another angle, but because Blue Field never swims out of its protagonist’s headspace we’re never certain if he deserves the benefit of her (many) doubts.
Marilyn’s passionately mixed feelings about Rand are mirrored – and superseded – by her devotional love for her best friend, Jane, a cipher who seems to have been conjured into being out of a twined sense of competition and communion: “[Marilyn] liked to believe that if someone slit her open, inside might nest a near-semblance of her friend.” Marilyn’s need to measure herself against a woman she’s known since childhood suggests an attraction that runs deeper than any romantic attachment, and given their lifelong tendency to swap boyfriends, they’re almost lovers by proxy anyway. Their friendship (or at least Marilyn’s estimation of it) is so intensely symbiotic that it’s ominous, and in a novel with a less sophisticated structure, the inevitability of Jane’s coming to a bad end would be distracting. But Levine’s phenomenological approach reduces plot to an afterthought. The predictable turns of the story are subordinate to its virtuoso presentation.
Blue Field is a master class in using language to simultaneously vivify and de-familiarize, and it’s at its best in the long passages that place Marilyn in isolation. Instead of simply treating water like negative space, Levine renders it as an infinity of fleeting, teeming movements, any one of which could prove fatally definitive: “a blur of hoses and fins, her own grasping fingers … what had ever tentacled around her and choked.” The tangle of tersely interconnected sentences force us to perceive the world through a visor glass, darkly, and yet for all its claustrophobia, this perspective is also wide open to synaptic leaps in time and space – flashbacks that parcel out dramatic and psychological
exposition in jagged chunks.
It’s risky business to commit so fully to a subjectivity that reveals so much and so little at the same time, and Blue Field’s murkiness will be frustrating to anybody who likes characters with fully transparent pathologies. (It’s also not recommended for claustrophobes or anybody with a phobia of drowning). Levine is the proverbial writer who needs to be met halfway, but if you are suitably courageous, and swim out far enough, the swirling vortex of her prose will take it from there.