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The Dark Backward

The LagoonThe Lagoon by Lilli Carre

Reviewed by John Pistelli
Rain Taxi

Lilli Carré's The Lagoon opens as bookish young Zoey listens to her grandfather recall the irresistible song of the creature that lives in the black lagoon near their house. Zoey is immune to the creature's call (she says it sounds like "a cat in a bathtub"), but her uneasily married parents are not, and her mother’s nocturnal sojourn to the lagoon ends in disaster. By the end, Zoey, now living alone with her grandfather, grows older and becomes impatient with the old man's reminiscences and obsessions. The book fades to black over a silent sequence of eleven pages as a fire the lagoon-creature’s errant cigarette has started in the family's woodpile sputters out.

The Lagoon's artisanal craftsmanship and child's-eye ironies reflect the baffled wisdom of a heroine too young to be foolish. The unfaithful mother and hapless father, while portrayed with some sympathy, nevertheless abandon their child to their own self-involvement, while Zoey, like the nostalgic family-album-style production design of the book itself, represents a fragile redoubt of incorruption.

The figure of the grandfather, however, warns us against any nostalgia for the age that preceded our parents. The senile old man wanders toward the lagoon, tirelessly harvests flowers from the yard, and wakes Zoey up in order to snuggle her under her bed and practice piano scales in his sleep -- because, he explains, "my body likes to avoid quiet however it can." In other words, wakeful desire continues to animate his senescent body, a body we frequently see in menacing proximity to that of his granddaughter.

If this is a family album, it may contain darker secrets than the pictures make explicit. When we recall that Zoey's parents make her play piano, the instrument her grandfather also played as a child, the book's palpable unease about the imprisonment of children within the psychodramas of their elders becomes vivid. Toward the end, the grandfather gives Zoey a haircut that she complains makes her look younger: the imposition of her elders' desires upon her plainly stunts her own growth. But The Lagoon offers us no portrayal of an adulthood into which it would be worthwhile to grow; in this, it is a gorgeously bleak (if remarkably conservative) work for so young an artist.

In The Tempest, another lyrical romance about water, age, and daughterhood, Prospero refers to the period before his daughter came to consciousness as "the dark backward and abysm of time." The black lagoon is this natal abyss of sexuality and longing, which can only be resisted by a child -- or perhaps by the child-like. Throughout The Lagoon, black pages that mimic the flyleaves at the book's front and back threaten to engulf the tale and reduce Carré's meticulously fluid lines to mere white splotches on a black ground. Innocence here is not a state of comfort, nor is it easy: one must create it with a discipline that can resist the siren song of dissolution. The Lagoon's dialectic between blank and inscribed pages suggests that the name of this discipline is art.

John Pistelli is a frequent contributor to Rain Taxi.

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