Queen of the Underworld
by Gail Godwin
Random House, 352 pp., $24.95
GAIL GODWIN'S NEW NOVEL makes exiles of everyone, including the reader. The year is 1959, and the callow yet calculating Emma Gant arrives in Miami to begin her life as a cub reporter. Her residential hotel, the Julia Tuttle (named for Miami's founder), is heavily populated with the first exiles from Cuba, all harboring hopes that Castro will prove to be a flash in the pan and they will soon be able to return home to resume their former lives.
Hector Rodriguez, dental surgeon by day, arms smuggler for the counterrevolution by night, speaks for all of them, as we listen ruefully from our little perch on the new millennium:
This new "ley agraria" of Fidel's, his "land reform," is nothing but an excuse to take what he wants. But do you know what keeps me hopeful, señorita? My respect for history. Yes, I am a great fan of la historia, especially the history of my country, and what gives me the hope are two things. One--he held up a finger--no Cuban ruler has ever held power for as much as ten consecutive years. And two--up went the second finger--is for certain the Americans will never allow a Communist regime to come so close to their shores.
And yet these vibrantly drawn never-say-dies, with their medianoches (fried pork and cheese sandwiches) and their fried green bananas, who dance the cha-cha-cha at poolside even as they plot the downfall of the great usurper Fidel, are repeatedly marginalized. Each time we try to get a good look at one of them--Enrique Ocampo, his sugar plantation appropriated by Castro, his entire body contorted into a strange, new posture of hesitancy and unaccustomed deference as he struggles with an unfamiliar language and a new life as a desk clerk--the insubstantial Emma steps into the picture and obscures our view.
Thus the odd and disconcerting mismatch between the relatively lightweight, popular-novel treatment of Emma's coming-of-age story (new job, married lover, nail polish) and the gravity of the underlying themes: exile, in its various forms; usurpation--of individual lives, of an entire country; the importance of finding and protecting one's authentic self (we must somehow manage to be what we are, in order to be truly known and loved); and the transmigration of souls (the ability to enter into another consciousness) we experience by way of empathy.
This disparity is unfortunate, since Godwin, when she makes an end run around Emma, can be remarkably insightful, expressing all the anguish of a displaced people in the poignancy of one small detail, as in Mrs. Ocampo's comments regarding two dolls belonging to her solemn nine-year-old daughter Luisa, who dreams of going home again: "Tilda has the headaches and Manuela, she has las pesadillas, the bad dreams. The dolls suffer for our whole family, thanks to our wise Luisita here." Thus the violence done to a culture by a broad scale usurpation such as Castro's reaches even into the sleep of the children's toys.
In the title, Godwin invokes the Greek goddess Persephone. While picking flowers on the plain of Enna, she was suddenly kidnapped, sucked down through a cleft in the earth, by Hades, king of the underworld, her mother Demeter's loneliness for her making a bitter wintertime of the world above. In the novel, the title of Queen of the Underworld unofficially accrues to Emma, empress of her own little realm of newspaper types and insurrectionist Cubans, awaiting her own imminent "abduction," but specifically refers to Ginevra Snow, Emma's counterpart or "sister adventurer," a former madam with whose story (another figurative kidnapping) Emma becomes obsessed.
Ginevra, "in a somnolent contralto," declaims Keats's "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" while lying on a gurney in a hospital emergency room, and does little else of interest, her connection with Emma fizzling to an ongoing correspondence on such mundane topics as the queen's decision to finish high school. It is telling that the people who supposedly mean most to Emma, including her lover, spend the greater part of the novel away from her, as if crowded out by her overwhelming self-concern--a trait that has the effect of trivializing, rather than reinforcing, the book's themes.
And so the question becomes, can Emma Gant (her name a cross between Jane Austen's "heroine whom no one but myself will much like" and Thomas Wolfe's Eugene Gant, unable to go home again) carry the novel? It's a curious phenomenon. All the pieces are in place here: the epigraphs by Spanish exiles, Emma's story, usurpations large and small, the overlay of mythos. Yet the parts remain separate and immobilized, like a string of railroad cars with no couplers and no engine. We have our tickets, but nobody is going anywhere. And then we realize what's missing. That the absent element is the reader's engagement--the spark of interest, the willingness, the absorption necessary to fire things up and move the scenery along--should not be at all surprising.
Life is personal. Human beings are naturally self-serving creatures, when not in the throes of occasional magnanimous and glorious acts, and in literature our self-interest (though it set the deconstructionists in their death throes to another round of hissing and shrieking) is best served by characters (preferably more than one, but even one will do) whom we can--yes, I'll say it outright--whom we can love.
I use the term loosely, to suggest someone, however flawed, whose fate engages us deeply. That there is no one here who fits that description represents an exile from meaning and pleasure that we might well protest.
But we are still left with the paradox of Emma's presence: that she consumes all the oxygen in the novel, and yet somehow her flame remains too dim by which to see much. (In Greek, Persephone means "she who destroys the light.") In an indicative scene on a borrowed houseboat, Emma uses a bathroom decked out with hundreds of small mirrors:
Virtually every inch of wall was covered with them. Square ones, round ones, heart-shaped, Art Deco, Tiffany, Woolworth's, framed in seashells, the masks of Comedy and Tragedy, you name it. Yet nowhere could you have an extensive view of yourself. While seated, I . . . partook of snippets of my anatomy, none of which, because of the limited views allowed, was either alarming or flattering.
And thus we always encounter Emma, fixated on her own image, but never able to see herself clearly, every person she meets a miniature looking glass in which to regard her own visage. Similarly, we are at the mercy of "the limited views allowed" by Godwin's choice of Emma as narrator. Whereas Jane Austen had the third person at her disposal to moderate the effects on the reader of her not-quite-likable Emma, Godwin has chosen the first person as her vehicle, and Emma to drive it. But in addition to the awkward self-boosterism the choice engenders ("My combination of attractive surface and interesting mind appeared to be having its effect") a character like Emma's begs for authorial intrusion, both to censure and to save her.
To be fair, Emma does make a bit of progress toward the end of the work, particularly in a scene around the pool at the Julia Tuttle when, surrounded by the exiles, she forgets herself a little, engages with Luisa, and is able, finally, to take her first swim. But her immersion seems too little too late, and is undercut by the affectless, science-book language of her epiphany: Like Emma, we are given the words, but not the feeling:
Lulled by my partial submersion in the watery element, and by the discipline of rhythmic breathing, my mind began to unclench and let go of its habitual frets. . . . Associations spooled out and made new contacts. Tough subjects and their interconnections pulsed with interest. . . . Our designs in progress collided, intermingled, left behind imprints, created more options, each with its set of branches and subbranches.
When Emma's boss (nicknamed Lucifer), despised by Emma for not much better reason than that he remains immune to her charms, in a sudden, anticipated-all-book-long strike, finally absconds with her (simply a reassignment of Emma to a work location she does not prefer), we are not moved to round up a search party. In truth, we are a bit relieved. Her absence will not turn the topside weather glacial and dull, and leave us lonely for human connection. It was, regrettably, her presence that did that.
Ann Stapleton is a writer in Ohio.