Friday, October 03, 2008

Babylon Rolling by Amanda Boyden

"We choose New Orleans," begins the prologue to Amanda Boyden's second novel Babylon Rolling. "We choose to live Uptown on Orchid Street inside the big lasso of river, though we rarely look at it, churning brown, wide." The novel's employment in the prologue of first person plural narration suggesting already that this will be story composed of stories, of voices.

Babylon Rolling
tells of a year in the lives of the residents of New Orleans' Orchid Street, beginning from Hurricane Ivan to just before the devastation of Katrina. Such disparate characters, these neighbours, black and white (and Indian); young and old; long-time residents and newcomers; good people and people who've somehow found themselves in more than a spot of trouble.

Though the first-person plural narration ends with the prologue, its spirit continues in the construction of the chapters ensuing. Written in the third person, but very close and in the various singular voices of the characters, within these chapters one voice turns into another in the space of a paragraph break. No other divisions between them, here are the different voices of Orchid Street, one after another as these people go about their separate lives.

The danger of this sort of structure, of such a broad approach to a story (in terms of chronology and character) would be a tendency for glossing over substance. For these characters to be "voices" but little more, and certainly not people, for how do you fit another entire life into a novel that is already so crowded? Which might happen in the hands of a lesser writer, but it struck me soon as I was reading Babylon Rolling that something quite different was at work.

As I read the story of Ariel, the transplanted Minnesotan working overtime managing a New Orleans hotel. She is on the verge of being unfaithful to her husband, and then of course we meet her husband Ed whose own story has nothing to do with that (though of course it will come to, but not entirely). Ed who saves his elderly neighbour Roy after an accident, in which a local drug dealer is to blame and Roy's wife is seriously injured. The drug dealer's younger brother Daniel, aged 15, calling himself "Fearius", and anxiously following in his brother's footsteps. A hurricane is approaching (but no, not "that" one, not yet). Some will stay, some will go. One of the former being Philomenia whose cooking up something poison in her kitchen and whose grasp on reality is becoming more and more tenuous, though it's pretty hard to tell.

The point being that none of these characters-- like nobody ever in his or her life-- is a peripheral character. Every one of them, including those who don't get to speak so directly, able to claim a part of the prologue's "we". And it dawned on me as I read that Babylon Rolling isn't actually a novel at all, but is a book of short stories all broken into pieces and put back together, a very different kind of puzzle. Which says something about the short story, I suppose, how its surprise appearance here so serves to elevate the novel. That these characters' stories and lives run so deep, not just into each other but in and of themselves. That their stories stand for their own sakes, complementing as they rub shoulders (and they're actual shoulders, blood and bone), and that rubbing of these shoulders can create an effect so incredibly rich.

So the structure of this novel is really quite remarkable, but even more so are the voices themselves. That Boyden can bring to life characters so different from herself and from each other as, for example, Philomenia Beauregard de Bruges (whose presence lends a touch of the Southern Gothic) and Daniel "Fearius" Harris ("But Fearius, he be patient. He learnt it. He waited to make fifteen full years of age inside juvey, waiting four months sitting in there.") Fearius in particular a leap, a risk, that this author could imagine her way into the mind of a black fifteen year old drug dealer, but it is a leap that Boyden makes deftly. I was uneasy with Fearius's voice at first, not for political reasons as much as grammatical ones, but I became accustomed to it soon, as much as all the others.

Boyden writes in her Acknowledgments that she started the novel in Toronto after having left New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina, which had "reduced our city, and me, to something whipped and dispossessed. I thought I might try to write a swan song for New Orleans." The result being a song certainly, even if not so entirely swannish. Because, as her author bio notes, Boyden lives in New Orleans "still". And the novel's epilogue returns to that very same "we", such collectivity a suggestion of hope amidst such destruction.