The Enchanted

I love an absolutely gorgeous novel like Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted. I am beyond grateful to have had the opportunity to experience the story so masterfully constructed; however, I hate asking myself to try to write about it. There is so much I want to say but so much I can miss saying. I loved every word from page one until the final. The novel is so adept at capturing feeling. It was arresting in parts and beyond moving in others.

The storyline revolves around an inmate on death row, who has decided that he wants to die rather than trying to get off. It’s this wish that spawns a strong investigation into his background to essentially save him from his desire (an irony noted throughout). The best part is the narrator is another death row inmate awaiting his own time, and he incredibly walks us through the time leading up to the execution, following several subplots that tie together so perfectly. The investigation is conducted solely by a woman who is in search of much more than clues to save this man’s life.

I find it strange that I chose this after finishing Annihilation. Again, veiled writing is at the heart of this novel. Perhaps that isn’t as uncommon as I like to believe, maybe I just haven’t noticed the trend. Anyway, it serves this story so well. It creates a dreamlike and ethereal state — a transportation mechanism that lifts us out of this pit of darkness (a prison).

Names (or the lack of their usage) have a particular role in setting this veiled atmosphere. When I first started thinking about this novel as a whole, I came up with the idea that only the fractured are nameless. Those that are whole are called by name. York (the inmate who wants to die) is named because he seems to be in a place of acceptance, becoming one with his fate. Also because his character has history and his name seems to be a key to unlocking that history. Those without names are sheltered. Their names and ultimately histories are shaded.

Even the location is nameless. As the novel opened, I had a hard time determining the location and time. But that slowly came into focus even though it still remained quite vague. And so I questioned: is there a point to all of the veiling? Is it for us to see our selves in these figures? If they remain shadow archetypes, can we easily project ourselves onto them? Or does the removal of a name reduce the opacity of these characters for us to see into them?

Those were the questions that I pondered and then it dawned on me, of course, the veiled storytelling is the narrator’s doing. The narrator: a death row inmate, the one who keeps telling us that this prison is an enchanted place. Another unreliable narrator. He hasn’t left his cell in years, so how would he know about what information the Lady is digging up? How would he know what was going on in the world above with the White Haired Boy? How oculd he have access to any of this knowledge? “This is an enchanted place. Others don’t see it but I do” (1), he tells us.

In fact, the narrator remains under his blanket most of the time, so it’s hard to imagine he knows anything about what is going on. So I’m going to ruin part of the discovery for you and contend that The Enchanted is our narrator’s own personal fairy tale to get him through the last moments of his life.

After all, he says he sees “the most enchanted things you can imagine” (1, emphasis mine). We are in the trenches of his imagination, his mind. “I want to tell you while I still have time,” (1). Tell us yet he is adamant throughout that he cannot speak, and there is “no diary on the stone floor” (225) for him to tell us through.

And back to the argument of names and those who incomplete, the narrator is finally named in the end (a moment I won’t spoil here), revealing a moment of transcendence and completion.

The novel deals with perhaps one of my favorite themes: the human desire/need to be seen or known — in effect, to matter. It blends the fantastic with reality reminscent to the film, Pan’s Labyrinth. The two collide so smoothly that it becomes evident that reality and fantasy belong together.

This is a must read. Denfeld has written a memorable first novel that deserves time and attention, and maybe even a reread (for me at least!).

Favorite Passages in The Enchanted

Inside, the lies you tell become the person you become. On the outside, sun and reality shrink people back to their actual size. In here, people grow into their shadows. (3)

I read my favorite books over and over again and each time found new things inside them, as if the writers had put in new words in my absence. (14)
— Love this quote … couldn’t agree more

I would think for hors how strange it was that some parts of words are silent, just like some parts of our lives. Did the people who wrote the dictionaries decide to mirror language to our lives, or did it just happen that way? (19)

I think that in the outside world, names come with meanings. A Harriet might bring forth a Samuel, and he is followed by a Dan, maybe, or a Susan. The names are connected like cords of life, each breathing into another and those names go searching to breathe into others, so the whole idea of a family tree is not a dead spine but a living breathing thing, with roots under clean soil, and bright sparkling branches hungry for the sky. When someone dies in the outside world, the other names go on breathing, seeking, creating, so that the tree seeds into the fertile forest floor, and it all continues. (38)
— Beautiful prose and explorative of the power of names

if there are things inside us too tiny to see, might there be things outside us too big to believe? (49)

Well — I suppose some things don’t need names, do they (59)

we know life cannot be contained on a slogan or a prayer tablet. We know that kindness rules with the fist and chains rule with a turn to the sky, that all humans require penance and without it we all seek punishment, over and over again, until the body and mind are satisfied and we die. (131)

Jesus made a last walk, I think, and so did Hitler. We all get a turn. (135)

I wouldn’t want the idea of this thing to be in the world. Ideas are powerful things; we should take more care with them. I know there are some who would disagree — those who think ideas are like food they can taste and then spit out if they don’t like it. But ideas are stronger than that. You can get a taste of an idea inside you, and the next thing you know, it would leave. Until you do something about it. (149)

Time is measured in meaning … It is meaning that drives most people forward into time, and it is meaning that reminds them of the past, so they know where they are in the universe. (154-55)

I will go as I have hoped to become: forgotten. (225)
— This statement hit me hard. My tears started on this sentence.

She is murmuring something, a word that sounds like the most precious word of all, after someone’s name, and that word is the same as the one I wrote to her on the inside of my book: Love. (233)

Annihilation

Annihilation, the entry to Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach Trilogy, is a masterpiece. Don’t argue with me. I read the novel back in 2014 when it was first released, and I was astounded at how beautiful and completely … other a novel could possibly be. As such a fan, of course, I was incredibly excited to learn of a film adaptation.

Actually, I was lucky enough to meet the VanderMeers (Jeff and Anne) at the Decatur Book Festival in 2014. Jeff teased that the novel had been shopped around for film rights and it was in the works.I slowly forgot about it until the trailer surfaced and my heart raced. So this opening weekend, I marched into the theater trusting Natalie Portman to be a strong Biologist/Ghost Bird, and I found my heart breaking.

But from the bad can always come good. While I was disappointed at Hollywood’s failed attempt to translate this masterpiece to the silver screen, I knew the antidote to such a poison was to read the novel again. So I did. I finished it in one delicious gulp.

Good God, what an intriguing and stunning novel. There is little to tell without telling everything, and fortunately, there is a fantastic novel to take care of that.

In the simplest terms, an expedition of four scientists are commissioned to go into Area X, a mysterious piece of land that has changed since the Event (whatever that refers to). Each specializes in a different area of expertise: psychology, biology, anthropology, military. Things aren’t as they seem; though, on the surface, everything appears to be pristine untouched land. In reality, it is anything but.

VanderMeer shows incredible prowess as he crafts a story that works so intricately upon the creepy. The tension in these pages can be so real at times that it’s mesmerizing. The novel is built in the guise of the biologist’s journal. She recreates her experience as she and her crew journey into the heart of Area X. There is this constant melange of the biologist fulfilling the role as the watcher and the watched. Tension fills the background because obviously there is some undefinable presence.

What I love so much about this novel, and I think speaks so well to VanderMeer’s true talent is the use of veiled writing. The characters are only partially defined for us. We don’t get much detail as to what they look like, or even what they’re names are. This cloaking adds to the mystery of this land. As the biologist notes, “Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X” (9). And it these withheld details that make the novel so cerebral but also direct our attention to the unknown.

Not only that, it puts us at the mercy of our self-proclaimed unreliable narrator. She tells the reader she is withholding certain information: “It may be clear by now that I am not good at telling people things they feel they have a right to know, and in this account thus far I have neglected to mention some details” (150). And this creates a rift of distrust, or perhaps envy. What does she know that we don’t? It is much like a mimicry of Area X itself — the answers escape us.

The biologist is much of an enigma. The psychologist and the surveyor (again they have no names, so they go by their titles) point out that the biologist has begun to change, while she argues that she is steadfast and the same as she always was. That’s actually untrue. She has indeed changed more than she lets on. She reveals in flashbacks that she is a very closed person. She is content in solitude. But as her journal (this document we are reading) shows, she has become much more open. She has revealed much more to us than she has to anyone else, though she claims, “I haven’t told it quite right” (193).

As I write this post, I have reread several passages, and I can’t help but remark at how gorgeous the prose reads. This is one of my favorites:

The ghost bird had found his ghost, on an inexplicable pile of other ghosts. But rather than looking forward to reading that account I felt as if I were stealing a private diary that had been locked by his death. A stupid feeling, I know. All he’d ever wanted was for me to open up to him, and as a result, he had always been there for the taking. Now, though, I would have to take him as I found him, and it would probably be forever, and I found the truth of that intolerable. (118)

This is no ordinary thriller in my opinion. Annihilation is an upstanding piece of fiction. I always judge a work by my level of jealousy, and I have to admit that I wish I had written this! It’s just so damn good. VanderMeer’s writing is masterful. The evidence of the creepy persists so strongly in the background of the novel, that the thrill of the journey seeps into your bones.

Circling back to the film, I often found myself wishing someone like Lars von Trier had a hand in the novel to give us something closer to Melancholia. There just wasn’t enough strangeness, mystery, and wonderment – not to mention aggressive changes to the story. So please, do me a favor, read the book first.

Favorite Passages

when you see beauty in desolation it changes something inside you. Desolation tries to colonize you. (6)

There are certain kinds of deaths that one should not be expected to relive, certain kinds of connections so deep that when they are broken you feel the snap of the link inside you. (46)

no amount of training could prepare you for encountering a monster. (59)

what was a map but a way of emphasizing some things and making other things invisible? (66)

That’s how the madness of the world tries to colonize you: from the outside in, forcing you to live in its reality. (108)

“but what about the /veil/ already in place?” (Psychologist, 128)
— confirmation of the veiled writing I mentioned … mentioned several other times

When you are too close to the center of a mystery there is no way to pull back and see the shape of it entire. (130)

I felt as if I were stuck between two futures, even though I had already made the decision to live in one of them. (147)

“but we couldn’t see it through the veil, the interference.” (Biologist’s husband, 166)
— further confirmation of the veil