Review: The Second Elizabeth by Karen Lillis
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
The Second Elizabeth
By Karen Lillis
Six Gallery Press, 2009
Paperback, 187 pages
The Second Elizabeth is probably best described as a novella-length prose poem. It's a meditation on what it means to be who one is, and how one finds that out, and how one's identity is channeled through one's name(s). Its author obviously has the sensibilities of a poet, though not exactly the sensibilities of a storyteller; the strengths of the book are more in the atmosphere, imagery, and concept-play than in the characters and plot.
Insofar as it is a story, it's a story about Karen Elizabeth Lillis, who has a second Elizabeth also hidden in her name (she took her middle name as her confirmation name), recovering from a broken-up love affair while living with her brother in Charlottesville and becoming friends with a woman named Beth (another Elizabeth) who lives next door. The book is heavy with a sense of place -- Charlottesville as a whole, and the parts of it Karen moves through in the two months of her life described there: her apartment, the deli where she works, and the streets and railroad tracks in between that she and Beth walk each day. The writing style makes the reader feel she is swimming in the humidity and in the emotions of the novel, especially a thick, thick nostalgia that imbues even the passages that aren't about the past.
But on the whole, I'm not sure I can even call this a story. There are many threads of narrative, but the author seems to be more interested in following each thread where it leads her than in bringing them together to make a coherent piece of work. It is one of those narratives that swirls around the edges of a traumatic event in the main character's past that is never explicated; a hole in the middle of a story is okay sometimes, if it gives definition to the narrative around it, but in this case it's just one more thing that makes the reader feel like there's nothing to grab onto -- no frame, no wrap-up, and no center. The progress of this piece of writing is but a string of moments -- albeit prettily-told moments.
Taking it as poetry, rather than trying to fit it into my expectations from a story, gives a different perspective. The poetlike way in which the narrator will take an image or concept and go over and over it in different ways, playing with it and teasing out all its connections, can be quite interesting. When it's simply repeating the same phrases over and over (as well as the same concept), it may also be poetical, but it's rather more irritating -- though an interesting exercise in forcing the mind to make sense of nonsense through sheer exposure. I wondered throughout whether this repetition of concepts and wordings was meant as an attempt at stream-of-consciousness writing, whether it was simply to enhance the poeticalness, or whether the author was attempting some hybrid -- a poetrified representation of cognition, perhaps.
If it's meant to be stream-of-consciousness, it is certainly an odd consciousness; the Southernism 'tetched' comes to mind. I gather from the author's MySpace page that the narrative style is supposed to be getting more childlike as it goes on, as Karen works back toward rebirth (as the second Elizabeth, a different -- stronger? -- version of herself). I found it childlike from the beginning and thought it just got more tiresome as it went on; I admire what the author was trying to do, but I think this is too sketchy a narrative to really embody such a vision. And, perhaps because of this deliberate degeneration or perhaps because the author couldn't figure out how to tie everything together, the novel ends on what I found too light a note -- with a chapter about the narrator dreaming, mostly nonsense (as dreams are), ending with a reference to a running theme in the novella (the language of the Second Elizabeth), but without really making anything of it. The effect is similar to ending a poem on an unstressed syllable.
There is a lot of focus on names and words and letters and talk, in the fanciful and pervasive way one expects from poetry. Though the fancifulness was usually entertaining, I did have some moments when reality intruded on my enjoyment of the embroidery on words and concepts. For instance, when the main character began lilting on about how her tears are letters and her crying rag contains a whole new mixed-up language because she never washes it, I had to wonder, if her tears were letters, what was her snot, and how gross was this rag that she never washed? (Being a very practical user of handkerchiefs, I always have this issue when authors romanticize tear-filled hankies...)
The narrator's sense of self is embodied in her name, and there are several chapters on that name alone -- how Karen Lillis is different from Karen E. Lillis is different from the second, secret Elizabeth from her confirmation name, and how it all relates to family and history and identity. The viewpoint character having the author's name (at least the 'Karen' and 'Lillis' parts) gives the focus on that name more intimacy, and to some degree gives the whole book more intimacy; it's an interesting choice, and ties in with the question Karen contemplates throughout of who gets to write our stories. (And also the question of whether it's the narrator or the writer who is tetched.)
The Second Elizabeth definitely has some good imagery and evocative concept-play, and is weird enough stylistically to have altered my state of mind a bit. The characters -- including the narrator herself -- are too much passive receptacles for the narrator's rambling thoughts to really stand out, but they give the impression that given a chance (in a book where they actually interacted with anything), they could be quite fascinating. But the heavy, embroidered robes of repetition and tangent in which those good things were garbed nearly hid them entirely, and though I'm sure the robes themselves had aesthetic value in some (more-fashionable?) circles, it was, alas, lost on me.
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