Damned by Faint Praise: La Lacuna
You’ll recall I had a plan for my 2010 reading.
Not sure how long the plan will last, but I am usually good for step 1. And item one on my list was The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I even went so far to say it was my reliable author pick.
It was reliable.
It was nice. Perfectly pleasant, even.
And that, my friends, is what we call in my family ‘damned by faint praise’.
Let’s not even start with the fact that I loved Poisonwood Bible so much I was expecting great things. Let’s just move straight to the fact that it would have been slightly more joyful for me to say this novel sucks apples. Because at least my pulse would be elevated. (Remember Oscar Wao? I was b.u.g.g.e.d.)
La Lacuna lets you drift through ever so gently, untouched.
Which is shocking, really, because Kingsolver seems to throw in about as many cameo celebrity appearances as a Robert Altman film. We have Diego Rivera, then well, hello! here is Frida Kahlo and, my goodness, Lev Trotsky and his communist writings. If Stalin had personally shown up, I would have lit the thing on fire. It defied even fiction.
It’s a story of Harrison Shepherd, a young boy of a social climbing and slightly crazy Mexican mother and an absentee American father. His real journey begins when he expertly mixes plaster for Rivera’s grand mural, eventually earns his way into the kitchen of their household and befriends the fiery Frida Kahlo. In this life, he is part of a community, both intellectual and revolutionary.
Through his years of journaling (all except that incredibly important one that is missing), we trace the narrative of the lead character’s life through his own voice. We follow him from coming of age in Mexico to his adult life as a notorious fiction writer in North Carolina. This narrative spans 1929 – 1950 and the dense historical context of the time — the Depression, World War II, on through the McCarthy trials. Whew.
This story is confused by the inclusion of Violet Brown, Harrison Sherpherd’s stenographer and private secretary. She ‘transcribes’ all of the personal journals and there are minor interruptions from Violet’s voice in a few strategic places.
Hrrmpff. This bothered.
But Violet Brown was indeed necessary to get to Kingsolver’s main point…which is the meaning of the Lacuna.
While Lacuna is literally a type of lagoon, Frida tells Harrison that it is the ‘missing piece':
“Frida, you always said that the most important thing about any person is what you don’t know. Likewise, then, the most important part of any story is the missing piece.”
Without Violet, it would be impossible to know of the missing journal. And for Harrison’s story, this is the critical missing piece.
But this left less of an impression than the bigger concept of Lacuna.
How many people do we meet every day, do we know as friends and colleagues and spouses, that we don’t really know what story is their lacuna–the piece that is critical to their story? That seemed powerful.
Otherwise, let’s be definitive in our faint praise.
“Lacuna” is a wonderfully fun phrase to say.
Say it aloud for kicks.