The Daydreaming Boy by Micheline Aharonian Marcom

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
July 18, 2004 Sunday Home Edition

BOOKS: 1915 genocide haunts, taunts young survivor

by ELLEN EMRY HELTZEL

FICTION
The Daydreaming Boy. By Micheline Aharonian Marcom. Riverhead Books. $23.95. 212 pages.
The verdict: An elegant, unsettling story of survival.

"In Paradise there is no past," observes the young Catholic Rachel in Micheline Aharonian Marcom's acclaimed first novel, "Three Apples Fell From Heaven." She is speaking from the grave after drowning herself to avoid being raped by Turkish soldiers. For her, hell is the pain of memory.

In her new novel, "The Daydreaming Boy," Marcom reprises this theme, her subject once again the Ottoman Empire's 1915 genocide against the Armenians. This time, the story remains in the land of the living, told by a fictional narrator who's looking back a half-century after the killings.

Vahe Tcheubjian lives in Beirut, Lebanon. He is both an unexceptional figure and a tragic one, describing himself as "a smallish man, a man whose middle has begun to soften and protrude, his long toes hidden in scuffed dress shoes." Beneath this bland exterior, however, lies a person "undone by history."

Vahe has lived a life of suppressing the events that scarred him and destroyed his family. When he was 7, his father was bludgeoned to death and his mother delivered to an unknown fate, while he was sent by boxcar to Lebanon and the Bird's Nest Orphanage. There, he grew up among what he calls the "Adams in the wasteland" --- child refugees who were pulled from their homes and herded together in a survival-of-the-fittest environment.

Vahe remembers how he ached with loneliness. He wrote letters to the mother who never replied. He cherished the weekly assembly-line baths, a brisk scrub-down by a dour-looking matron, because it gave him the chance to recall a maternal touch.

After leaving the orphanage, he worked as a carpenter, got married. And then, as a middle-aged man, Vahe can't stop thinking about Vostanig, the outcast who was sexually and physically abused by the other boys, including himself, at the Bird's Nest. "The stranger: he was all of us, the damned exiled race in its puny and starved and pathetic scabbed body," he recalls. "How we longed to kill him."

For years, Vahe made a habit of visiting the Beirut zoo on Sundays, where he shared a smoke with the tobacco-loving chimp Jumba. But before handing over the cigarette, he would poke its burning end into the chimp's flesh, exacting his price. If there's any doubt that Vahe is a deeply damaged man, this gratuitous cruelty dispels it.

Jumba and his fellow primates are a motif in the book, their captivity and behavior reflecting how Vahe perceives a hostile world. A newspaper article datelined South Africa announces the discovery that man and gorilla share the same brain size and capacity, underscoring the primal connection. The metaphor threatens to overpower the story, but Vahe is too compelling to ignore.

Vahe has learned to translate his grief and emptiness into lust, braiding sex and violence together, as he was taught. Having been victimized himself, he becomes victimizer, as indicated by this simple exchange with the servant girl Beatrice:

"Would you like a chocolate?"

"No, merci."

"No, merci? Here, take it. I've bought these chocolates and I would like for you to take it." She is still looking at the floor and I've grabbed her hand and pushed the gold truffles into her small hand.

Dialogue is the exception in a story built mostly on interior speech, using poetic, even mnemonic, devices that reflect how memory works. For Vahe, the past returns in intermittent blasts, like power surges traveling down the neural pathways. Through his eyes we see the lies and obfuscations gradually fall away.

What remains is a man who sees himself for what he is, "the ragged round left by absence of affection and knowing."

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book critic and writer who lives in Portland, Ore. With Margo Hammond she writes the weekly column "Book Babes," which can be found at http://www.poynter.org.


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Critics’ Forum

The Curse of History: The Daydreaming Boy
By Hovig Tchalian

In April of 2004, Riverhead Books published The Daydreaming Boy, the second book by Micheline Aharonian Marcom, a Saudi-born Armenian writer raised in Los Angeles. The book went on to garner critical acclaim, winning Best Book of the Year honors from the Los Angeles Times as well as the San Francisco Chronicle. Marcom’s first novel, Three Apples Feel from Heaven, first published in 2001, had also won praise from critics and readers alike. The author is reportedly planning a trilogy, of which these two novels make up the first and second installment, respectively.

Marcom’s two novels depict the various aftermaths of the Armenian Genocide – its toll on lives, relationships, and the psyche of a scattered nation. As such, the novels portray in fiction what would normally be doomed to fail in fact, the attempt to reverse the unmentionable event itself, to start over. This gesture of looking back, then, provides the most appropriate metaphor with which to begin this article and this series.

The later of the two novels, The Daydreaming Boy, tells the fictional story of Vahe, an orphan and survivor of the Genocide transplanted to Lebanon. The story leads us through various events in his life in 1960’s Beirut while moving us in and out of his daydreams and wild hallucinations. We catch glimpses of his slowly disintegrating marriage to a woman named Juliana, the relentless memories of his brutal youth at the orphanage, and his own self-destructive desires.

The story opens as the orphans land on the shores of the Mediterranean:

We are naked like Adam and the blue wide band now becomes what it is, the long sea rises before us, the notfish become what they too are, so that we see: water; white-capped waves stretched out into infinity; but not salt, warm, sad. Clothes stripped and bodies for the sun and sea and we run like the djinn, thousands of boys running to the Mediterranean, saying, we thirst, we thirst and we drink the water and we laugh and gag, a gaggle of orphans loaded onto the boxcars at Eregli and unloaded in the Lebanon by the sea’s edge.

The novel seems to move as far back as the historical imagination will allow, to the Biblical Eden. But Marcom invokes the moment just after the Fall, after Adam’s recognition of his own nakedness. As such, the fleeting innocence in the scene is quickly dispelled in the profane reference to the children as “djinn,” Arabic for demons. Marcom will later remind us of this scene in describing the children of Vahe’s orphanage as “Adams in the wasteland, eating the bread made from the sweat of their brow” (87). The word “notfish,” which seems to be Marcom’s own, will also be echoed ominously throughout the novel: when Vahe grows up and finds himself in a loveless marriage, he will “notlisten” to his wife, and while answering her say that “it is not me listening” (7-8).

Marcom folds many other elements of this first scene skillfully back into the novel. She repeatedly evokes the Mediterranean described in the novel’s first scene, as an emblem of both loss and renewal: though occasionally in the novel people will look hopefully out of their windows at the sea, Vahe will suggest more enigmatically that “the sea has always been a solace, his haven, and she is sadder than you know and dangerous; beautiful” (72).

We discover quickly that the “wide band” of the Mediterranean has already closed in on Vahe’s childhood friend, Vostanig, who we are told drowned himself in it. Later still, Vahe’s own search for his past will echo the “thirst” of the children in the first scene. He will describe himself as unable to quench his thirst, and yet unable to end his life in the sea inside himself. He will eventually die at gunpoint while looking longingly at the Mediterranean.


As this brief overview suggests, Marcom’s novel is full of moments that are poignant and yet brutal, so graphic that they are sometimes difficult to read. Reading the novel, in fact, produces the peculiar feeling of having lived through much of what is being described in it. That feeling is surely a testament to Marcom’s writing ability, of her ability to describe in fiction what is difficult to confront in fact. But it is equally a testament to the enormity of the Genocide itself, whose shadow falls across every page of the novel. To draw a perhaps inappropriate analogy, we might consider how much of the laughter produced by an “ethnic joke” told among members of the same community has to do with the teller’s gift and how much is the result of the uncanny sense of recognition produced by the joke itself.

The novel alludes to this strange commingling of fact and fiction in its final pages. Vahe asks a question that the reader of the novel, the historian of the Genocide, and the enemy of Genocide recognition might all ask, though for different reasons. Addressing the “invisible history stories” told in his own tale, Vahe asks: “how do I know something occurred, if I myself have not been witness to it?” (200). The curse of the novel, and this one in particular, is that in returning to the tragic events it describes, it must come perilously close to recreating their brutality. About a third of the way through the novel, we see Vahe and the rest of the orphans walking in file on the long trek to the orphanage after landing on the shores of the Mediterranean. This is clearly a new beginning of sorts, at least in Vahe’s memory: “My memory begins here,” he says. “I can pinpoint the beginning of what I remember” (65). But the “new beginning” follows a recollection of another sort immediately preceding it, of Vahe’s mother, whose husband was killed mercilessly on another long trek, the one through Der-el-Zor, and who later gave up Vahe for money.

Perhaps the two most brutal moments in the novel grow out of this strange juxtaposition of scenes and the inability, both Vahe’s and the novel’s, to re-imagine or re-invent the past. We find out that Vahe is the product of his mother’s rape by a Turkish soldier, which sends Vahe into fits of violence and the repeated desire to kill her. (We have been told earlier that Vahe and his wife are unable to bear children.) This brutality culminates in one of the last scenes in the novel, in which Vahe rapes a servant girl, described in terms identical to his mother’s rape by the soldier. Vahe’s final babblings tell a disturbing tale: “The sooth flesh I required to get a little bit of it back, a small immeasurable ineffable return: inside that girl’s flesh I was (say it!—Says): home” (205-6).


The impossibility of starting over is a favorite theme of modern literature and criticism. And its application to an event such as the Genocide is a reasonable one. Despite that fact, however, and though Marcom’s novel represents much more than a literary exercise, the novel’s attempt to rescue the Genocide from history proves ultimately less than gratifying. The novel remains trapped in the irony of its own enterprise: the fictional retelling of historical events not yet accepted as fact simply redoubles the difficulty of the effort. The novel ends fittingly, just as the Lebanese Civil War begins, in effect as history intrudes to push Vahe’s adopted country to the brink of destruction. We are left as readers to ponder the larger fate of the Diasporan communities created by the Genocide, whose attempts at starting over create the possibility of yet other homelands to leave behind. This kernel of historical truth alone survives Marcom’s novel—we might even say despite it.

All Rights Reserved: Critics Forum, 2005

Hovig Tchalian holds a PhD in English literature from UCLA. He has edited several journals and also published articles of his own.

This and all other articles published in this series are available online at http://www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to http://www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

SUBMITTED BY THE AUTHOR


A Debate

The Daydreaming Boy: A Postscript
By Hovig Tchalian

In the article above, I wrote about Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s 2004 novel, The Daydreaming Boy.

The novel tells the fictional story of Vahe, an orphan and survivor of the Genocide transplanted to Lebanon. I suggested in the article that the novel’s story allowed us a glimpse into the central character’s destructive desires, fueled in part by the memories of his brutal youth.

I also acknowledged in the article the difficulty of addressing the issues from within the fictional form. Part of that difficulty, I argued, revolved around the central irony of inadvertently repeating the very brutality the novel depicted.

Given the relentless brutality of the novel’s fictional account, then, and the larger, unimaginable brutality of the Genocide itself, the question to ask of the novel, and indeed of Marcom, is simply – why? Why write a novel that reads like the diary of a madman?

I will let the author answer that question on her own terms, as she has in numerous interviews, in which she has consistently invoked the integrity of the story and the fictional form itself. I will offer instead several reasons why the novel may be considered largely a failed experiment.

First, the story makes for less than compelling fiction. The experiment in the form almost entirely overpowers the novel itself. What is more, the experiment itself, represented in part by Vahe’s disjointed, erratic ramblings, is nothing new. We can compare the prose representing Vahe’s musings to the more genteel exploits of Eliot’s anti-hero, J. Alfred Prufrock, as well as to James Joyce’s brilliant if difficult novelistic experiment, Finnegan’s Wake, both published early in the last century, the former in 1917, the latter in 1939.

As such, the novel comes off as repetitive instead of stimulating. Not only does it repeat earlier modernist experiments, it also repeats its own conceits in a number of places, with little apparent purpose or much in the way of genuine originality or insight. A central image in the novel, for instance, is Jumba, the ape Vahe befriends in the Beirut zoo, the Jardin Zoologique. Like Vahe’s other relationships, this one is clearly based on violence and brutality. We see Vahe offering the ape some of his cigarettes, but only after the ape has allowed him to burn his skin in exchange. We realize in reading about the exchange how self-hatred is at the root of this relationship and so many others in the novel. In short, we realize how the violence Vahe inflicts on other creatures is a form of self-destruction, how he has become little more that the beast he at once despises and cares for.

The image sheds considerable light on the violent after-effects of the Genocide. And this is an important achievement of Marcom’s. And yet, the novel stretches and strains to make that point, embedding often less than subtle pointers to it in its jarring shifts in language and meaning, in the relationship between its characters, in the short glimpses of the Genocide narrative – in short, in every imaginable facet of the prose and the larger story it tells.

I am surprised, quite honestly, by the effusive praise the book received – “beautiful,” and “dazzling,” proclaimed the Los Angeles Times; “ethereal” and “unsettling,” declared the San Francisco Chronicle. I found the novel’s style instead to be for the most part contrived and too deliberate, far too involved in its own sense of experimentation to effectively serve the purposes of either effective prose or convincing polemic. The novel stands as an interesting, in parts compelling, experiment gone awry.

The Daydreaming Boy leaves us, in the end, with little more than the personal and historical irony of its own undeclared subject, the Genocide itself. The dilemma of the Genocide and its ultimate place in history, both personal and political, lends the novel its true center, its heart and its soul.

In Defense of the “Notreadable”
By Ara Oshagan

For some books, the writing is done for the writing, not for the reading.

That is, they are written such that the process of writing itself reveals something to the author about itself. The words on paper act as a mirror or attempt to act as a mirror, with little thought or quarter given to the reader. For these books, the end result is not the book itself but the actual process of writing. The fact that they are published is purely incidental, really.

Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s “Daydreaming Boy” is one such novel. Or perhaps, more precisely, it is a novel with this idea at its core. As Marcom says “I am responsible only to my characters and my text.” It is repetitive, it is obsessive, it invents new words, on one page the actual font size decreases like a funnel, it’s hard to tell what is actually happening, what is not, and in the end it seems nothing at all has happened. It is a maddening, hard-to-follow, self-possessed book. Readability is not its concern.

Its concern is form, in other words, how to write about what cannot be written about, in other words, how to make fiction closer to life, in other words, how to approach. Perhaps even how to approach the approach. Its topic, of course, is the Genocide, the Catastrophe (as Marc Nichanian refers to it), the Unimaginable and its aftermath.

The Catastrophe is not simply another story. It is an unimaginable story, a kind of black hole of experience that is untouchable—especially now after three generations. So, the fundamental problem of Art becomes how to approach it. This perhaps is also the only issue that can be addressed—not actually ever touching it, but simply reflecting on how to approach it. How to write about the Unimaginable and Unwritable? The only viable answer has to with the medium itself. That is, “how to approach” is about form. It is not about the story. Or the story’s corollary: readability. It is about construction.

A work of Art about the Catastrophe must be hyper-aware of this issue.

And Marcom is. She attempts to bend, twist, recast, reconfigure, re-imagine the form to be able to begin this approach, to somehow elicit from the medium the ability to encompass that black hole. How do you reach scarcely into the black hole but not fall in? How do you imagine the Unimaginable?

Books or works of Art that do not realize this issue are doing something different than addressing the Catastrophe. They are telling the story of a story that cannot be told. So what are they doing? Perhaps they are political or polemical or archival works. Perhaps they are complicated memoirs of some sort. Typically, they retreat into the personal-family narrative. They say, “I am going to tell my grandmother's story and that will also be about the Catastrophe.” The Unimaginable cannot be simply told, events cannot simply be strung together (no matter how eloquently) to tell the Untellable. The grandmother's story in and of itself is not enough. The Catastrophe is not about personal horrors.

Ironically, “Daydreaming” is more about the Catastrophe than Marcom’s earlier one, “Three Apples Fell from Heaven” which is ostensibly directly about the Catastrophe. “Three Apples” has no real issue with form, it is not concerned in a serious way with “how to approach.” In “Daydreaming,” Marcom has the courage and the elastic and formidable grasp of the English language to attempt this experiment in form, in twisting and turning language itself, to attempt to create a means by which one can approach the Unapproachable.

My one wish: that Marcom should have started her trilogy (which moves from the Ottoman Empire to Beirut to Los Angeles) backwards. Faulkner after writing his second novel, “A Soldier’s Pay,” said that he now understood something about language. Hagop Oshagan, after his second or third book, said I have now learned which way to hold a pencil. If you begin with the Unimaginable, where do you go after that?

“Daydreaming Boy” is a challenge to read—to keep the thread of the novel together, to attempt to grasp the amorphousness of the text and events. But it is well worth it. Once you do away with the presumption that it is written for you to read.

If Marcom continues on this trajectory, her work will certainly make an impact on American literature. She could also become the best fiction writer in English-language Armenian literature since William Saroyan.

All Rights Reserved: Critics Forum, 2005

Hovig Tchalian holds a PhD in English literature from UCLA. He has edited several journals and also published articles of his own.

Ara Oshagan has degrees in Physics and English Literature from UCLA and a degree in Geophysics from UC Berkley. He used to be a scientist and now is a photographer. But everything still comes from Literature.

This and all other articles published in this series are available online at http://www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to http://www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

SUBMITTED BY THE AUTHORS




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