"Draining the Sea"
(Reviewed by Poornima Apte MAR 13, 2008)
One of the greatest writers of the Beat Generation graces the pages of Micheline Aharonian Marcom's latest novel Draining the Sea. At the end of the book is a quote by author Jack Kerouac: “I never felt sadder in my life. LA is the loneliest and most brutal of American cities.”
This statement is fully verified by the novel's unnamed protagonist who lives in Los Angeles eking out a meager existence by picking up and disposing of road kill (mostly dogs). The dogs could be viewed as metaphors for the many casualties of war that he has personally come across. One dead woman in particular haunts him relentlessly—a Guatemalan woman called Marta. The reader gathers that the narrator was somehow complicit in her murder during the Guatemalan civil war which raged for decades between 1962 and 1996. Marta was an indigenous Guatemalan—a member of the Ixil Mayan group in the country.
In her earlier award-winning work, Marcom has written about the Armenian genocide and here too, she hints at the narrator's Armenian heritage. There isn't much of a story to follow in Draining the Sea and for many readers that might be frustrating. In perhaps another nod to Kerouac, instead, Marcom follows a “stream of consciousness” style of prose in which the narrator constantly describes his memories of Marta and also speaks about the larger horrors of war. The prose while arresting, is comprised almost entirely of phrases which can make the reading quite difficult at times.
Marcom is fiercely critical of America's complicit involvement in Guatemala's civil war. She is also relentless in her criticism of all things American, especially American consumerism—a factor she implies contributes to its attendant loneliness. “Things are certain, the rules have been cast, the weather makes no difference to the American, we condition air and alter what we abhor,” she writes. “We buy products, diets, fats, to feel good, and cremes and machines for: driving digging seeing, and we don't walk the streets of this city and buy machines for walking; magazines to learn how to do it: making love; buying guns; safe-keeping our properties and ourselves (alarms steel bars locks and thick glass).” At the same time she also paints a very romantic picture of the victims and their cultures. While nobody will dispute the nuggets of truth in these portrayals, the writing can come across as overly simplistic.In interviews, Marcom has pointed out Americans' apathy toward history. “There is a certain damage done by not remembering, by willfully forgetting the past, which, as Americans, I think we do a lot of,” she has said, “there is a certain historical amnesia in America which is pervasive.” Her efforts at erasing at least some of this damage through Draining the Sea is quite commendable. Marcom's powerful prose and the parallels she draws between genocide all across the world—be it the Armenian genocide or the Guatemalan civil war—are shocking and will hopefully, have readers sit up and take notice. Marcom has admitted that while literature might not be able to redeem suffering, it can at least “make something beautiful out of something awful and atrocious.” That, Draining the Sea, certainly does. It successfully leaves what Marcom has called, “a kind of authentic record.”
- Amazon readers rating:
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
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- Official website for Micheline Aharonian Marcom
- The New York Times Excerpt for Three Apples Fell From Heaven
- The New York Times review of Three Apples Fell From Heaven
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About the Author:
Micheline Aharonian Marcom was born in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia in 1968 to an American Father and an Armenian-Lebanese mother. She grew up in Los Angeles, but, as a child in the years before the Lebanese Civil War, she spent summers in Beirut with her mother's family. Marcom's first novel, Three Apples Fell From Heaven, was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway Foundation for first fiction and received Columbia University's Anahid Literary Award. It was named a Notable Book of the Year by the New York Times and one of the Best Books of 2001 by the Los Angeles Times and Washington Post.
She lives in Northern California where she teaches creative writing at Mills College.