Friday, December 22, 2006

Like A Virgin -- Pure As Snow

Manuel Ramos

The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani (Penguin, January, 2007) is an unsettling read. A powerful, frightening and challenging book. The kind of book that readers often talk about wanting to find -- a piece of writing that says something new, that disturbs the status quo and moves the reader to action, or at least uncomfortable thoughts -- but, once found, produces a deep and uneasy hesitation, a pause in the contemplation of the writing because of the troubling images and quirky use of words.

Abani's website says that "Chris Abani's prose includes the novels The Virgin of Flames (Penguin, 2007) GraceLand (FSG, 2004/Picador 2005), Masters of the Board (Delta, 1985) and the novellas, Becoming Abigail (Akashic, 2006) and Song For Night (Akashic, 2007). His poetry collections are Hands Washing Water (Copper Canyon, 2006), Dog Woman (Red Hen, 2004), Daphne's Lot (Red Hen, 2003), and Kalakuta Republic (Saqi, 2001). He is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Riverside and the recipient of the PEN USA Freedom-to-Write Award, the Prince Claus Award, a Lannan Literary Fellowship, a California Book Award, a Hurston/Wright Legacy Award & the PEN Hemingway Book Prize." Impressive. I have not read anything else by this writer. Are his other works as wild as The Virgin of Flames?

Here's the basics of the plot: Black is a mural artist who practices his trade in East L.A. He lives in an apartment over "The Ugly Store," a combination tattoo parlor, coffee shop, and cafe. He obsesses over Sweet Girl, a transsexual stripper who has become a fixation in his imagination. On the roof of The Ugly Store he has built a spaceship, a place where he can go to contemplate his next work of art or his next suicide attempt. His friends include Iggy, his landlord and the tattoo artist/fakir-psychic who suspends herself from meat hooks by means of metal rings embedded along her spine; Bomboy, a Rwandan butcher (yes - in every sense of that word); and Ray-Ray, a dwarf who smokes marijuana soaked in formaldehyde, and who loves Raymond Chandler trivia. And Gabriel, the Archangel who hovers near but never interferes, and who occasionally comes to Black in the form of a pigeon.

Black's latest mural is Fatima, a fifty-foot Muslim woman choking a dove and brandishing an AK-47. It doesn't take long for the city to get a court order for the mural to be destroyed, but that is the least of Black's concerns. He has other pressing issues, like dim and unrealized memories of his dead Nigerian father, a scientist who was killed in Vietnam, and of his Salvadoran mother, who, in the madness caused by the loss of her husband, relentlessly beat and persecuted the young Black. Or the memories of wearing dresses until he was seven because, as his father said, there was a curse on the men of the family and the boys had to be protected.

All of this comes to a head when Black is mistaken for a vision of the Virgin as he stands atop his spaceship in Iggy's wedding dress and is highlighted by a police helicopter spotlight. Believers gather around The Ugly Store, sharing their prayers and ecstasy produced by the vision, one of many, as it turns out, that are occurring in Los Angeles, to the great joy of the lost souls and pilgrims looking for answers.

Abani's writing is overwhelming. He masterfully works his words to take the reader inside Black's wounded psyche. We see the world from Black's distorted viewpoint, and we believe it. Abani is the guide for this trip into Black's fractured, almost psychedelic life. The story moves at a brisk pace and there are no wasted scenes or sentences. Here is a short sample: "Flat. The roof of The Ugly Store lit by the early morning sun and Black, supine in the shade of the spaceship. This was a near daily ritual for him: a mug of hot tea and a cigarette here on the roof before his morning workout. From up here, the city fell away to one side, the river, the other. Black loved Los Angeles; the expansiveness of it, like a sneeze still tickling at the back of his sinuses, able to become anything, or nothing. He loved that. The feeling that he could become the person he always wanted to be, even though nothing in his life pointed to it."

The essential puzzle for Black, of course, is figuring out who the person is that he wants to be. To answer that, he looks deep into the dark night and litter strewn landscape of his hometown, from angles that do not hide the anguish, pity, hate and love of people torn apart by their own faults and mistakes, their own reluctance to understand themselves. When it finally becomes clear who he is and what he has become, Black must lash out in the only way he believes he can, the only way that makes twisted sense to him.

Walter Mosley said that Abani has revealed Los Angeles has it has never been seen before, that he has rewritten the American story and "brought the world into our streets, our most private negotiations and confessions." Confession is supposed to be good for the soul. I don't know about the soul, but I think that Abani is good for anything that ails the state of current North American literature.


A few photos for those of you who have ever wondered what a Colorado blizzard really means -- hours of shoveling and an achy-breaky back.

Looking for the sidewalk

Flo muscles her way to the steps

Where's the car?

That's it for me this week. Join La Bloga's clan next week as we celebrate the end of one year and the birth of a new one. I'm sure all of my pals here on La Bloga will have something special to commemorate the passing of time and the promise of the future.



msedano said...

i do not envy you the snow. it's a good thing you got "The Virgin of Flames" before the roads and airports froze solid, because know i know what to order next. Akashic such an outstanding lineup of writers.

Many Unitedstatesians won't realize the parallels between the Christian virgin, mother of the Christ, and Fatima, mother of the Prophet.

I admire the Alma Lopez virgin. A great cover image sure to grab an eye and tick off a fundie.

Thanx for the tip.

Anonymous said...

Great post! Have to get that book. Keep warm ese. shoveling snow looks horrible. I love living in Califas! 70 degrees expected for Christmas! YAY!

Manuel Ramos said...

I think you two will dig the book. Let me know. Michael - remember the pedo that started up when the Santa Fe museum was attacked for exhibiting the Lopez Virgin? Even crossed over to Chicle. Gina - Denver is almost back to normal. Three feet of snow one day, bright sun and clear blue skies the next. We are warm and snug. Feliz Pascuas.