In an essay called “The Chattering Mind,” collected in his 2015 book, Where I’m Reading From, novelist and critic Tim Parks isolates a “monstrously heightened consciousness” as “the main protagonist” of 20th-century fiction. The “full-blown performing mind of modernist literature,” claims Parks, is characterized by suffering and indecision; the author of novels featuring such a protagonist – Parks names Beckett, Woolf, and Faulkner – “is simply not interested in a mind that does not suffer, usually in extended syntax, and not interested in dramatizing the traumatic event itself, only the blocked and suffering consciousness that broods on it afterward.” Notwithstanding the fact that Parks restricts his analysis to the modernist period of the 20th century, it seems like a particularly apt description of Magda, the protagonist of Toronto writer Elizabeth Ukrainetz’s new novel, The Theory of Light at Midnight.
Indeed, Ukrainetz rifles the modernist arsenal for techniques – stream-of-consciousness, fragmentation, allusive or symbolic language, temporal dislocation – used to delineate Magda’s crumbling interior world. The trauma that afflicts Magda occurred in late childhood: at the age of 12, she was kidnapped and held captive in a basement (or, as she describes it early in the novel, “a cell in the basement of a basement”) by a man she refers to only as “Mr. Kennedy.” The seven months spent in captivity are presented elliptically, in almost poetic memory sections sprinkled throughout the text: “He gives me things, sits down across the room and talks. Sometimes he cries. Sometimes he attacks. Heat breaks from the skin, gets trapped in clothes, sweat itches along backs. His body lifts and comes down.”
As the memories of her childhood terror begin to flood back over the adult Magda, her increasing distress drives a wedge between her and her partner, Louis, who eventually walks out on her, leaving her alone to attempt a reconstruction of her identity and integrity. The novel presents this attempt as a kind of free-flowing series of short, expressionistic paragraphs – some no longer than one or two sentences – that reflect the protagonist’s psychic struggle and confusion.
Fracturing narrative to convey psychic distress or frustration is a fairly conventional modernist tactic (if one may be forgiven that somewhat oxymoronic turn of phrase), but Ukrainetz manages to keep the momentum up in the early stages of the novel, enticing the reader forward through the scattered breadcrumbs of Magda’s history. This approach requires mastery in order to succeed, however, and it easily wears out its welcome over the course of an entire text.
A poet as well as a prose writer, Ukrainetz has a handle on language, but for every clever use of alliteration (“I walk down the slope, a long loose loping of arms and legs, spine curved swaying”), there are other, unfortunate instances of sloppiness. The unconventional verb “loping” is repeated earlier in the novel, in a much more awkward construction: “Identity slips out of the socket of the self, rattles loping across the floor.” Elsewhere, the author writes, “I can feel in myself what Mr. Kennedy pushed into me there, the piece of himself that he could not bear or overcome. It sleeps in me here, this morning, and will sleep for days, months, maybe even years, but it is a puncture, a tear, in the fabric of what I am, a force hidden under the routine, smiles, pleasantries, shaping what I want and what I can and cannot do.” There are, by my count, at least four separate metaphors battling for ascendancy in this brief passage.
Parks would cavil at the extended syntax and the brooding consciousness that pervades this novel, but by employing this approach, Ukrainetz at least intermittently accesses a mechanism to effectively dramatize one woman’s search for stability and wholeness in the face of trauma and memory. Much more troubling is the frequent default to ill-considered or lazy writing, which undermines the structure the author struggles so valiantly to create.