In Theory of War, Joan Brady reveals a little-known piece of American history that has dominated her own life. In the chaos after the Civil War, white children, the sons and daughters of impoverished widows, of ragged soldiers, were sold into virtual slavery. Black slaves – who had been expensive – had just been liberated. These white children, ‘a crop of kids nobody wanted’, could be bought cheaply, with few questions asked. Jonathan Carrick is probably not more than four years old, a chatty, active, bright-eyed little boy, when he is sold to Alvah Stokes, a struggling tobacco farmer, a man brutal but shrewd. Alvah beats him into silence, denies him an education and forces him to work from dawn to dusk in the tobacco fields. When Jonathan tries to escape, the local shopkeeper who had arranged the sale gives him some advice: ‘Grow up fast.’ No one in the town can do anything to stop the family’s abuse of the boy. To Alvah’s son George, Jonathan is no better than a cow or a shipment of tobacco: ‘You ain’t even human. Never will be. Your pa sold you. My pa bought you. You’re a commodity.’
When Jonathan finally escapes he can’t speak: all his teeth have been removed (the remedy Alvah finds for a fever following one of his beatings). He never forgives George Stokes, his bullying ‘brother’, the boy who read the books and wore the frock coat he coveted, who won his trust for a moment and then abetted his destruction. Even after Jonathan is educated, becomes a successful preacher and marries a woman he adores, the thought of George’s existence still poisons him. He murders George, then starves himself to death – as if the hatred were so much a part of him that killing the source of it was like killing himself.
Jonathan’s story is pieced together by his unnamed granddaughter, who flies to Washington from England to speak with her uncle, the only remaining witness. Like her grandfather, she feels an outsider; she is a ‘resident alien in England’, an ‘untouchable’ disabled woman. Jonathan had rarely spoken of his enslavement, even to his family, and he wrote his diary in code: the benign tumour growing in the granddaughter’s spine is perhaps too obvious a metaphor for her grandfather’s suppressed rage.
A philosophy student, she uses the language of war to describe her grandfather’s progression from rebellious child to murderous adult. Her commentary, with its observations on philosophies of war, its search for some Platonic truth in the face of her teachers’ belief in the certainties of the material world, tries to make sense of her grandfather’s enslavement. Her father committed suicide, her uncle is poisoning himself with alcohol, and she will never walk again. Decoding her grandfather’s diary, breaking his silence, is not enough; she must move beyond despair. Her uncle berates her for seeking ‘some consistency, some meaning’: ‘Life’s not like that ... It’s a whirlpool ... what’s important is the rotating centre. Where’s your sense of wonder? The pattern is alive. Infinitely complex.’
She refuses to accept this vision of a world without past or future, this strange marriage of American optimism and Zen Buddhism, this dream of forever becoming. Even after he lost his faith, Jonathan could not forget that Jesus had come to him once like a lost father. We are left with the granddaughter’s (and Jonathan’s) agnosticism; she cannot give up the search for ‘eternal permanence’ neither can she believe in it.
Theory of War is not without humour. The granddaughter, for example, describes her uncle’s fourth wife as someone who
had one of those faces that are purely American. Even at whatever ancient age she’d reached ... there was nothing in the skin, nothing in the eyes, nothing around the mouth to betray a single thought or a single experience; all was as hygienic as an unwrapped roll of toilet paper, no hint whatever that anybody had ever lived there: a safe house rather than a face.
Joan Brady must counter this terrifying blankness, this banality. She is always contrasting the weight of tragedy with its denial; those who have been scarred by history with those (like ‘he-man’ Alvah Stokes) who are so devoid of humanity that they cannot be touched. Alvah is as empty as the featureless plains where he labours, as unthinking as the tobacco worms he crushes between his fingers. Not so much corrupt as amoral, he is the unacceptable face of the American Dream: ‘take away Hollywood’s sanitised version and this much loved hero was as brutish a creature as the pit of hell ever spewed forth.’
Theory of War is written with such passion and righteous anger that we are not surprised to discover it is based on the true story of the enslavement of Joan Brady’s grandfather. His children, four of whom committed suicide, and his grandchildren inherited his fury and his despair. But when we read about the little boy whose charming spirit is destroyed, we cannot help but think of generations of black slaves whose stories Jonathan’s repeats. In her opening quotes Joan Brady suggests that slavery, like disability, is an ‘allegory of all life in society ... but with slavery the metaphor’s so much a part of the language no-body pays attention to it anymore.’ Through Jonathan the reader may feel what it means to lose one’s bearings, to be made less than human.
In Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Virgin Suicides the Lisbon sisters have taken the American dream of a life unblemished by experience to its extreme. Their suicide is an escape and a rebellion, the girls thwarting not only their parents and the boys who love them but their fate as women. Cecilia, the youngest and the first to go, is a withdrawn eccentric who is found in the bathtub with her wrists slashed, ‘her small body giving off the odour of a mature woman ... a laminated picture of the Virgin Mary held against her budding chest’.
She is brought back to life, only to jump from a second-floor window and impale herself on the spike of a garden fence. A year later the others, having packed their bags to run away from a crumbling house and a strict mother, decide to leave the world instead, each in her own way, as in a throw of tarot cards: death by hanging, by pills, by carbon monoxide, by gas.
Their story is recounted by a nameless narrator, now approaching middle age, who cannot forget the five beautiful teenage girls who committed suicide over one year of his adolescence. Like the granddaughter in Joan Brady’s book, he has become so obsessed with this episode that he must turn to other ‘witnesses’: neighbours now grown infirm and senile, the girls’ parents, his friends, to contemporary newspaper reports, for some explanation of why the daughters of an ordinary, middle-class family – mother a librarian, father a teacher – in a non-descript American suburb should all decide to escape from their future. Again like the granddaughter in Joan Brady’s novel, he becomes the historian not only of his own life but of a whole generation.
We feel at the end of the book that we know more about the romantic and erotic dreams of the narrator and his adolescent friends than about the minds of the five sisters. The sisters become expressions of the boys’ disgust and fascination with their own sexuality as much as with that alien being, an adolescent girl. When one of the boys is allowed in the girls’ house he discovers a used tampon in the bathroom: ‘it wasn’t gross but a beautiful thing ... like a modern painting.’ The suicides mark the end of the boys’ innocence and their suburban idyll; even the trees begin to die as the poverty and violence of the city draw closer. The narrator and his friends must grow up, but the girls – and this is part of their attraction – remain fixed in their adolescence, virgins of history.
Yet Eugenides lets us see the suffocating existence behind the romance the narrator has made of the sisters’ lives and deaths: ‘we felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colours went together.’ When the doctor asks Cecilia why she attempted suicide she replies: ‘You’ve never been a 13-year-old girl.’ While the boys seem to wander at will, watching the girls from a treehouse or a rooftop, the Lisbon sisters are trapped as much by their mother’s rules and their dreary home as by the taboos and rituals of their sex. Theirs is an enclosed world of synchronised periods, shared bedrooms and baths, offerings of lotions and lipsticks, a crucifix draped with a bra. Cecilia jumps to her death in a soiled, torn, antique wedding dress. As the anniversary of her suicide approaches, her sisters distribute cards with a picture of the Virgin Mary and a phone number on the back where she can be reached: ‘Our lady has granted her presence to people just like you.’ The Virgin Mary is their good fairy and stern mother. Like their real mother, she denies their sexuality, their changing bodies; only in death can they be immaculate.
Jeffrey Eugenides writes well; his fervent, richly-textured prose is funny, self-mocking, yet desperately serious and sad. Though we know the fate of the girls from the beginning, the novel never loses its tension, its air of expectancy; we keep hoping for one bit of information which will explain the suicides, which will comfort the boys and allow them to forget. But by the end we know the narrator will never solve the mystery of the girls’ deaths, never in the end understand their sexuality, never contain them.
Like the vampire sisters in Dracula, they are more powerful in death, their spirits tugging the narrator back into the past, possessing him in a way they could not have done had they lived. Jeffrey Eugenides shows us the American dream of a world without time as a dangerous, solipsistic, adolescent fantasy. The dreamer cannot see beyond herself; her childhood is gone, her future unimaginable; only eternity beckons: ‘The girls took into their own hands decisions best left to God. They became too powerful to live among us, too self-concerned, too visionary, too blind.’