In this, his fifth full-length book, Norman Lock paints the portrait of a lonely everywoman, a plain Jane who spends days pushing a mop and nights drinking tea, sitting her sadness on her elbow "by the window looking out. Out, where all is hurrying over the rainy streets." Lock paints the portrait of an "old woman with a cracked face" who, as a child, was teased to tears. Now, years later, in the last phase of her life, she is preparing for her own long rowing into death.
Chances are you have never heard of writer Norman Lock, though he's been publishing his peculiar fiction in literary magazines and various small presses since the late 1970s. He was awarded the prestigious Aga Kahn prize in 1979 for the best piece of fiction to appear that year in The Paris Review. And since then, Lock has gone on to publish four full-length books. Trio is three collections of short prose. Notes to the Book of Supplemental Diagrams for Marco Knauf's Universe is a faux non-fiction novella that claims to only be "translated" by Lock. In Land of the Snow Men, written and published under the pseudonym George Belden, Lock wants us to believe that he discovered and rescued the manuscript from a box stored in the basement of a private sanatorium in the Green Mountains of Vermont. And The History of the Imagination, a wildly inventive novel set in an imaginary Africa right before World War I, conjures up a fantastic, metaphorical landscape populated by Einstein, Freud, Houdini, Stravinsky and H.G. Wells, among others.
In his diverse body of work, Lock has established himself to be an inventive literary ventriloquist. Standing at the center of his limitless universe, he summons worlds that spin in their own orbits. His latest fictional offering, The Long Rowing Unto Morning, is his most impressive and straightforward work to date. It's a simple novel told in a voice that's lyrical yet unadulterated by adornment.
Jane lives alone in a room that she calls "mine and locked." She tells us a secret about "the boy who put his hand on me, then went away never to come back." She returns to the image of this moment in recollected tranquility, again and again, and it becomes increasingly menacing the more often the refrain is used. But her world wasn't always so dark and alienating. It could also be quite poetic. This passage from her childhood, the happy part of it, stands on its own as a poem-in-prose:
After supper we went outside to watch the night. We walked to where the sun went behind the hill. We watched the shadows spill, the birds fly. We felt the night fall. It was a cold shadow falling. It made us quiet. Behind us I saw the windows all on fire, the windows of our house. Suppose some day the house burns down? I thought. What will happen to me then without a house to live in when it's cold? Without a roof when it rains? No beds to sleep in, no table for our plates? Every night I thought of that. Then the sun sank it always did and the fire in the windows went out. The shadows disappeared, the windows died and nothing shone in them until we went back home and lit the lights.
The Long Rowing Unto Morning is a story, not unlike Gertrude Stein's novel Ida. In Lock's deft hands, we see the interior landscape of someone waiting to be transformed, to be delivered. A woman who has, as she says, "put away the sky. I have put away the boy who took me behind the hedge. I have put away outside."
It was Whitman who made the most human of invitations: "Whoever you are holding me now in hand ... if you will, thrusting me beneath your clothing, where I may feel the throbs of your heart ... thus touching you would I ... be carried eternally." The Long Rowing Unto Morning lives up to Whitman's words; no other book, no other writer, in recent memory, dares the reader to believe there is a hand reaching out to be held, a hand to hold onto us.
Peter Markus is a poet and freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected].
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