Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Two maverick souls struggle for closeness (Books - Three Weeks in December by Audrey Schulman)

Two maverick American souls travel to Africa 100 years apart.  Each faces an utterly unfamiliar culture and physical hardships that challenge them to change fundamentally or to perish.  In 1899, Jeremy an engineer, is charged with the construction of a bridge in British-held East Africa, employing a crew of Indian workers.  The work is plagued by two lions who have begun attacking humans.  Max is an ethnobotanist hired by a pharmaceutical company to track down a rare vine in Rawanda that could be the source of a valuable hypertension drug.  Her search is pressured by the advancing Congolese rebel army who threaten her with bodily harm, and the mission of her co-workers who study silverback gorillas.  The habitat of the gorillas, for whom Max develops an intense sympathy, will potentially be ravaged by commercial drug development.

It was Eric Markowsky's review at Chamber 4 that drew me to Audrey Schulman's Three Weeks in December.  The twin narratives separated by a century are a well-worn fictional format by this point, but they didn't feel that way in Schulman's hands.  Each story supported the other, evoking parallels on themes of technology, exploitation, negotiating closeness, and the experience of the outsider - an experience shared by her protagonists.  Jeremy is not only a reticent overdressed white man in Africa, he is homosexual.  Max, is a light-skinned black woman with Asperger's, one of several diagnoses one can receive on the autism spectrum.  As a result, they share a tendency toward social awkwardness and are used to keeping to themselves.

Schulman tries to resist formula with the Asperger character traits.  She occassionally sounds like she's quoting the diagnostic manual but in her stronger moments she vividly imagines particulars of individual behavior.
She didn't talk at all until she was four, before that only squealed in inarticulate rage or laughter.  Then in August just after her fourth birthday, she said her first words, strung together a whole sentence.  "Mom smells nice."  She was looking away of course, at the ground.  Her mom whooped and grabbed her in a hug.  Max flailed.  There was a muffled crack.  Her mom grabbing her nose, the blood spurting.

They'd taught each other compromise.  The way they shared closeness was by sitting side by side on the couch, a foot of distance between them, hugging the other person's empty winter coat.  Her mom's coat was corduroy and smelled like her: sort of salt maple syrup.  Max would press her face into it.  She murmured, "Love, love, love."
Some might charge Schulman with supplanting character development with a diagnosis but in Max I found the result was a fascinating and credible human being challenged to overcome her limits in extremis.  I accepted her on her own terms.

Jeremy in the context of his time and place has so repressed his sexuality that he lives almost entirely in his head in anticipation of the rejection of others.  In meeting Otombe, a local guide who helps him to hunt the lions, Jeremy finds acceptance of his closely held secret. Schulman adopts a more elegant, removed tone for Jeremy, evoking both the era and Jeremy's distancing of himself from his sexuality.
Horrified, Jeremy took Otombe's hand.  He cared not a whit anymore about respectability.  He clung to the hand as hard as a child to his father's, a man to his lover's, a boy to his mother.  
Max has several dreams of her aunt Tilda, a character Schulman has imagined as ravenous for physical affection.
Tilda cornered Max and stepped forward, hands out.  Her odor of floral perfume and sweaty intimate areas.  She grabbed Max and, in the ensuing struggle, ripped a chunk of skin off the girl's arm.  The flesh coming off not bloody and ragged, but all of one color, like a chunk of play dough.  Her aunt pressed the flesh into her chest, patting it down until it merged in seamlessly.  Then she tore off another chunk.  Each piece of flesh became her own, part of her determined normality, fused into her body permanently.  Max understood her aunt had done this to other children, many of them, those who were different, erasing them entirely.  This was why she weighed so much.
I usually hate it when authors try to write their character's dreams, they so often come off as bald attempts at explaining subtext, but I found this one believable and a hilarious way to get at Max's reticence to be touched - a quality she shares with Jeremy.  The action of Schulman's characters in Three Weeks in December might, in fact, be summed up as moving closer to others, both in a physical sense and in their ability to understand the behavior of others.  This is an automatic mechanism for people who fit in in their society as it is so necessary for surviving as a social being, but for Jeremy and Max to succeed would be something of a triumph. It was their parallel struggles 100 years apart to become members of their own race (the human race) that kept me so riveted by this novel.

Here, if you would like, is an interview Eric Markowsky did with Audrey Schulman.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I will have to look for this one. Sounds very good. Excellent review.