Posted by: holdenlee | December 29, 2015

The Saskiad, Brian Hall


(goodreads, detailed notes)

Saskia thinks of Thomas, walking inland with his oar on his shoulder. He walked until no one knew him or his people, until he was so much a stranger in a strange land that the man at the gate mistook his oar for a winnowing fan. What would Saskia’s “oar” be?

The Saskiad is a rite-of-passage story written in stream-of-consciousness. It’s about imagination, the desire to explore the unknown, the beautiful illusion of pinning fantasy over reality, contradictions of character, and the meaning of home and family.

It’s part of a small genre of books which have a powerful effect on me: The Slow Regard of Silent Things, The Grasshopper King, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. These books appeal to me because they’re all about people who don’t fit in but/because they have a rich life inside their head. It’s compelling to see how deep the arrow of a thought can go.

(Warning: Spoilers and sexual references.)

*

Like all real people, I go under several names. To the laconic Captain, I am simply ‘Lieutenant,’… Marco calls me Aiyaruk, which means ‘Bright Moon’ in the Tartar tongue. By Odysseus’ side I am Saskion Monogeneia. Lastly, the Novamundians… call me Saskia White.

So begins Saskia’s autobiography. The story weaves in and out of her thoughts and dreams. In her dreams she keeps the company of the likes of Odysseus, Marco Polo, and Horatio Hornblower. They are four secret agents of extraterrestrial origin, scattered in history and meeting only in dreams, orchestrated by the great Tycho Brahe, who monitors the galaxy from a faraway planet.

Saskia imagines. Imagination is desire, thoughts spilling out of any space that confines them, radioing through the sky. Her father, Thomas, left the family in unknown circumstances. She knows from her mother’s stories that he is a wanderer, who leaving his boat, walked with his oar until he came upon people who had never seen an oar (hence the quote). This is what Saskia wants, to run and run and run until she’s in a completely alien land.

To her, America is Novamundus. Northern Europe is Hyperborea, the far north of Greek mythology, the land of the Phaiakians.

She writes haiku; she pastes stars on her ceiling in accurate constellations.

When she turns out the light, her faithful stars have come out to cheer her… and the Moon, her planet, is a wind-filled sail racing along the ecliptic, waxing, always waxing, toward some fullness, some completion she can hardly wait for, but cannot forsee.

She worries she doesn’t look like the heroine of any story, and dreams of transformation. She hates her body, her breasts like “ballast,” wishes she had her mother’s long hair, which she wants to swaddle herself in “like a caterpillar in its cocoon [and] wake up a butterfly.” She dreams that Kublai Khan is looking for the perfect maiden, and she is the only one to get 13 out of 10 points.

Saskia lives in a commune close to Ithaca, New York, with her mother Lauren. Lauren works tirelessly and meditates until her “concentration [is] so steady and slow it seems to ooze from her like molasses to coat the object of her attention.” The other residents are “Bluffaroo” Bill, Jo, and her “siblings” Marco, Mim, Austin, Shannon, and Quinny. Saskia helps with the farm; they take turns with the cooking; she takes care of the kids and feeds them magic. Life here is quiet now, but as she learned from incomplete answers to her questions, it used to be Godhead, a place where LSD and nakedness reigned, headed by a guru called Truth who eventually went mad.

Saskia imbibes the objects around her with stories and sacredness. The things they own are all old, but she operates under the maxim that “you respect things’ idiosyncracies and they, in turn, will faithfully work for you, in their own ways, year after year.” Their car is Betsy, a Ford Pickup who used to be a Wondermobile, now “lamed with a bad hip,” who will try to buck Bluffaroo Bill out of the cab when he drives. From their chickens and cow they take only eggs and milk. Their animals will die only from natural causes:

The chickens mince and dither until they keel over from tiny heart attacks. Marilyn will experience a sudden massive stroke in her meadow on a sunny spring day and collapse in a patch of clover so lush and loving it will lower her gently to the ground. Such care is ordained. If you do not treat the things around you with the proper respect, they will not be good to you. You will not have earned their goodness…

Saskia doesn’t fit in at school. She is self-conscious, the narration inside her head too precocious compared to her social ability. But she makes a friend in Jane Sing, beautiful and tall and dark, with “lurking hunger.” They are soon intimate, acting out their stories together. But where Saskia is hesitant, Jane is wild; she smokes weed, she has had sex.

“I used to imagine [the geese] were talking to me. ‘Come on, girl! Fly!… How can people lock themselves up in those cages when the world is so unexplored?’… The thought that I might just walk over the hill and then over the next one… No one would know who I was. God. I loved the thought of that.”

Lauren and Saskia receive postcards from Thomas with no return address. One day Thomas invites Lauren to come with him. Lauren can’t go, but as Thomas is her idol, Saskia convinces Lauren to let Jane and her go. Before she goes she burns her autobiography. She is now in the Neo-Thomas Age.

Thomas takes then into the wilderness in Sweden (“Hyperborea”). They will join a group of protestors to stop the construction of a dam. Surrounded only by nature, the pace of the story slows down. Thomas is everything she hoped he would be. He hardly seems to sleep. He prepares meals with ceremony, once even with champagne. When it’s foggy they spend the whole day in the tent. He enchants them with his stories, of his dogs and his ships, all called Lila; how he pursued the Green, a whaling ship, to bring the crew to justice.

He teaches them to be frugal and to respect nature: walk on the rocks, treat the insects as friends, don’t use any more string than required. “Our needs will mesh, if we only let them. If people learned to love most the things that worked simply and well, this planet would not be in so much trouble,” he says. He looks with disapproval at the inhabitants who “hack everything off passing animals.” Saskia calls them Laistrygones, the cannibals from the Odyssey.

The other “Phaiakians” that they were supposed to hike with never materialize. Thomas says it was just a story so that Jane’s parents wouldn’t worry. While Thomas and Saskia are on the same wavelength, though, Jane, unused to the wilderness, finds herself alienated. Saskia tells Thomas that Jane has a crush on her. Soon after, Thomas and Jane enter into a sexual relationship.

Frustrated with the ineffectiveness of the protests, Thomas sets fire to the construction the night before they leave. Saskia and Jane convince Thomas to go home with them.

*

“You and I are like crystal. Most people are just glass. The world sings a note to them and they can’t feel it. But we hum.” (Thomas, to Saskia)

 

Back when she was afraid of the dark she always brought a flashlight. But it turned out that was exactly why she was afraid. The whole world was black and she was a shining target.

With Thomas home, their family is whole. Everyone likes Thomas. He raptures everyone with his stories in the evening. He takes charge, prohibiting any products he deems wasteful or harmful to the environment, replacing their toilet paper with towels, commercial soap with candle-wax soap. He cancels their annual Thanksgiving celebration (the timing of Thanksgiving is proof that the Pilgrims were late in their harvest, he says) and has them sit on the porch and listen to silence, “We are going to let the world enter us.”

He tells them that he learned dissection in school when he was 14 years old. He wanted to be a vet, so he caught a frog, anesthetized it, cut it open, pretended to fix it.

“It was only then that I realized. They had shown us how to dissect a frog, but they hadn’t shown us how to put one back together.”

Saskia’s dreams grow from her new experiences: she, Odysseus, Marco, and Horatio are of the same race as the whales. The planet of Hyperborea, which houses the Tychonic Astronomical Observatory, receives the message of whalesong from Earth, “Then Man, rapacious, wild, insatiable, came upon Earth and upset the Balance of all things, and it did come to pass.”

Thomas tells Saskia to stop closing the door of the chicken coop: there are too many farm animals, desertifying the world. The next night, a fox comes in and eats the chicken heads. “Try to let go of this sentimental idea about nature. Chickens aren’t a real species,” he says.

Now when Saskia looks at the empty chicken coop she sees Thomasness… [the] Wholeworld crystal becomes more pure [and] hums more and more like a goblet with Thomas’s finger running along the rim.

The relationship between Jane and Thomas poisons Saskia’s friendship with her; deluded, Jane thinks that Thomas loves her and Lauren is only a third wheel. Saskia, Jane, and Thomas are always bickering, and Thomas is restless, going out on his boat to be alone every day.

At school, Saskia finds new friends. She finds that she has crossed the threshold from being weird to being cool, and enjoys her newfound social status. She cares about looking “sexy.” She’s convinced she’s found a new life for herself until she leaves her first party feeling disgusted and disillusioned.

Saskia tells Lauren about Thomas and Jane’s relationship. She knows, but shows little reaction.

Thomas says that he can’t stay forever. A few days later, he leaves without saying goodbye. Saskia is devastated. Her dreams implode. The truth unravels in her mind: Thomas was the guru of Godhead. His word was law, he had sex with many of the young girls, he tried to kill himself but failed, and then left the commune.

Did he leave this second time because he felt that he was approaching the shattering point? What must it feel like when the wall of the bubble of consciousness splinters and the sea roars in? Only the great souls know, the seekers who go to the limit, who probe the outer edges of themselves to find out what they are shaped like.

Saskia cuts her hair and runs away.

*

On the bus, Saskia introduces herself as “Jane Dark” to a stranger, Russell Turney. She stays with him in New York. She finds Russell and his roommate James disgusting boys, but hides her disdain and feeds them lies. She calls Jo – the only one at the commune who will talk about Thomas – and has her suspicions confirmed. From research in the library, she finds his story about Lila and the Green to be made-up. Russell becomes enamored with “Jane” and fantasizes about them marrying and buying a house. Without warning, Saskia leaves to go back to Ithaca; Russell pleads (“But why don’t you love me? Tell me what you don’t love and I’ll change it.”) but all she does is give him a fake address.

On the way back, she reflects on the past year. She is angry at Thomas for betraying the trust she put in him, but also acknowledges her own naïveté and guilt. She isn’t sure if she can ever think “delicious thoughts” again, she is left with a lot of questions she can’t answer.

She pushed Jane into Thomas’s arms all the while surely knowing that Jane would fall madly in love with him, as any woman must, but that Thomas would assuredly want to trade up to Lauren, or at least diversify, and in any case he would eventually escape, and Jane would be devastated. And for her next trick, she went down to the City and tore out the heart of the first person she met…

How did she cause so much trouble, so much suffering… it never occurred to her that she might end up being the villainess.

Are cows motherly saints who fit into their spaces better than any of God’s creatures, or are they stupid creations of evil Man who are desertifying the world? If you protect the chickens and eat their eggs you’re not a true vegetarian, but if you let a raccoon at the chickens’ heads, then you are?

Saskia was very clearly the narrator and protagonist of the story she wove about herself. She wasn’t empathetic: the students and faculty at her school were just mindless caricatures in her story. Her dreams were pure tones. One of those revolved around Thomas: she bought completely into his environmentalist adventures; his coming home was the dream come true. But things aren’t so simple. In following his desires, Thomas hurt other people. To Saskia, his greatest lie was “everything you do matters,” because although he taught it in his stories and many of his actions, other things he did were very ugly, without a mindfulness of others.

Her vivid stream of thought flows on – but now it’s loopy, questioning, a narrative voice divorced from a protagonist’s narrow viewpoint, more aware of others. The final dots in her history she connects herself, so that she sees her reality without the protective glasses of imagination. Things are complicated, good and bad are mixed together, and she has to deal with it. It’s not as simple as judging with the voice in one’s head. She wanted escape and adventure but the final scene, of her welcome home, is of acknowledging where she comes from.

Perhaps “home” merely means the place you could walk around with your eyes closed, the place you know best.

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