Isabelle the Navigator
By Luke Davies (Berkley Books, 260 pp., $12.95)
Good lyric poets rarely make good novelists, though manylured by the prospect of both a real paycheck and actual readersgive it a try. It’s not that the meditative lyric impulse is totally at odds with the propulsive demands of narrative, or that the inherently compact and musical language of a poem would be cloying at the length of a novel, though these are problems the poet-novelist faces. No, the bigger dragon, the often unslayable one, is that most lyric poets have a hard time speaking in a voice other than their own. In a novel written by a poet, all the characters tend to sound like each other, which is to say they all sound like the poet himself.
It’s virtually amazing, then, that Luke Davies’ gorgeous new book Isabelle the Navigator is populated by characters who sound as utterly like themselves as any other disparate human beings bumping into each other in a day. That it succeeds, moreover, as a completely compelling first-person account of a young woman’s life is almost miraculous.
It’s true this novel has the usual poetic problems with narrative. Insofar as there is a plot line, it’s revealed in its entirety by the end of the first chapter: Isabelle’s lover dies in a collision with a truck, Isabelle’s father Tom commits suicide after surviving four years of incarceration for Medicare fraud, and Isabelle herself is cast into emotional chaos. Though the book is a thoughtful delineation of these events, with unpredictable details helpfully filled in along the way, there’s certainly no need to read this novel merely to find out what happens: Davies gives it all away in the first 17 pages.
It’s true, too, that pacing is uncertain here. Though gorgeously written, whole chapters have no apparent connection to the story, indeed could stand alone as fictive essays or plotless short stories. Nor do they contribute meaningfully to the development of Isabelle, who is so superbly drawn that within a dozen pages she’s complete as a character.
The chapter called “Meat Truck,” for instance, is a tale of 4-year-old Isabelle’s afternoon in her beloved Uncle Dan’s delivery truck and of her explorations in the junk-filled backyard where he makes his final delivery of the day. As Dan stops for a beer with the proprietor, Isabelle pokes around in the backyard mayhem and discovers some newborn kittens. While the scene provides a lovely poetic microcosm of the novel’s central premisethat life somehow has a way of flourishing even in a metaphorical disaster areait adds nothing to the novel itself. And the transcendently gorgeous chapters set in Paris, where Isabelle goes to recover from her lover’s death and to escape her father’s descent into madness, are so language-dense and so plot-irrelevant that they might just as well have been poems. One begins to suspect that the Cliffs Notes version of the story presented in the first chapter is the result of a manuscript editor’s insistence that Davies provide some sort of navigational tool to help the reader find her way through this meandering book.
And yet an equal case can be made that these are not failings at all, but the result of a deliberate effort to discredit the notion of narrative itself. As Davies’ title suggests, the emotional world of this book is oceanic and atmospheric, both unpredictable and unstable. This is a story that may or may not be true, may or may not be remembered accurately even by its own protagonist, much less wholly understood. Davies tells his tale in Isabelle’s own voice, and the first-person narratorlike the eyewitness to a crime or accidentis the most notoriously unreliable storyteller of them all. To make the point as overt as possible, Davies has Isabelle both insist on the absolute truth of her tale and on the likelihood that she has misremembered or misunderstood almost all of it. “Nothing is invented here,” Isabelle asserts on one page; “I cross-referenced all my stories, extracting the last bit of detail like water squeezed from a towel.” But then, in the next paragraph, this: “Perhaps I have entirely made that part up.” This assertion of absolute truth followed immediately by a retraction of certainty occurs dozens of times in the novel. The halting and flowing of the narrative, then, may simply be another part of Davies’ exploration of the limits of fact and of historical sequence.
That such an effort comes across less as narratively experimental than simply confusing doesn’t detract from the brilliance of his achievement in Isabelle the Narrator herself, however. Men have been writing confidently about women for hundreds of years, of course, but not necessarily about the specific experience of actually being female. Before women writers began to tell their own stories, female characters in classic literature were either caricatures or men in drag. When they were treated as fully human, the animating humanity was not their femininity but their universality. The human heart in conflict with itself, as Faulkner put it, works much the same way whether male or female.
The human body, by contrast, is pretty gender-specific. Isabelle may be struggling with truly universal feelings, but as a character she is more than simply a stand-in for what men and women have in common. For Davies is totally unintimidated by the fact that he is not himself equipped with a female body, and he has given his Isabelle all the set pieces of a female coming-of-age taleincluding an excruciatingly accurate description of first menstruation and a sex scene that’s almost shocking in its intimacy, its understanding of female desire. To cap it off, the novel ends with a more explicit description of labor in childbirth than can be found in What to Expect When You’re Expecting. As a literary construct, Isabelle is all woman, a tour de force of Davies’ negative capability.
The other great strength of this book, unsurprising in a gifted poet, is its use of language. A reader determined to make note of the best parts may find herself underlining a sentenceif not entire paragraphson every page. No sample quotation could come close to conveying the cumulative effect of all those underlined passages. Not just because they’re beautifully expressed, or because they carry the aphoristic ring of truth, but because no one’s ever made that point before, and certainly not point after point, metaphor after metaphor, in just that way. This is neither treacle nor exorbitant lushness, either of which one might fear to find in a “poetic” novel. It’s truly language made new.
And in the end, this is truly a magnificent novel, a novel about being human, about being female, that isn’t the predictable fare of what’s now being called “women’s fiction.” It’s almost a shame a woman didn’t write it, but it’s a gift, at least, that a poet did.
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