Sunday, April 18, 2010

Dorothea Dreams by Suzy McKee Charnas

As I mentioned in my post about the WisCon launch of our new Heirloom Books series, the second book in the series will be a novel, Dorothea Dreams, by Suzy McKee Charnas. This is a work that's hard to classify, as you'll see from the passages below, excerpted from Delia Sherman's introduction. It's the story of a gifted artist who can't let go of her most powerful work. It's the story of a Chicano neighborhood fighting a corporation that is buying up the neighborhood using foul trickery. And it's a ghost story. Delia opines that it's interstitial.

Here's a bare-bones synopsis:

When her old friend, Ricky Maulders, who's dying cancer, visits artist Dorothea Howard, he discovers she’s being held captive by the magical power of one of her own creations that she refuses to let go of, and haunted by the ghost of a judge in post-Revolution France. Dorothea insists that all she wants is to be left alone. But then three Chicano teens on the run from the police and a gaggle of summer-school students violently enter Dorothea’s life, and Dorothea is confronted with all the messy stuff (like “politics”) she’s always sought to avoid.

And here are two passages from Delia's introduction:

When [the paperback edition of] Dorothea Dreams came out in 1987, I snapped it up, knowing only that it would be good. Now that I have read The Vampire Tapestries, I realize that the voice of Dorothea is a variation on the voice of the Weyland stories. At the time, I was chiefly struck by how spare and unyielding the prose in Dorothea Dreams is—like the desert landscape it describes, and like Dorothea herself. I also remember how real everything felt: the desert, Albuquerque, Dorothea’s house and splendid wall, Pinto Street, Ricky’s suffering. Blanca’s asthma.

Now, Dorothea Dreams is a thematically and structurally complex and subtle book, not the story of a single secondary character. Still, my most vivid memories of that first reading are all of Blanca. I myself was an asthmatic child, and I knew the terror of the band around the chest, the panicky feeling that your body is fighting against its own survival, the helpless fury of knowing that you can’t do almost anything you want to do because you might have an attack. And although I had written several short stories and a novel by then and should have known better, it seemed obvious to me that no one who had not experienced that helpless fury, triggered by just that physical event, could possibly have written about it with the unsentimental clarity Suzy had brought to Blanca....

....for years, I thought of Dorothea Dreams as the book with the asthmatic child in it, and oh, yeah, wasn’t there a wall in the desert and a ghost?

Re-reading the novel, twenty-three years later, I know enough to see how Blanca and her asthma fit in with the ghost and the desert and Dorothea’s wall. Like the plastic doll hands and broken china and rocks that make up the glittering glory that is Dorothea’s masterpiece, the reality of Blanca’s disease and her reaction to it is part of the larger pattern of suffering and response to suffering that gives Dorothea Dreams its shape and emotional power. Every character, primary and secondary, from Ricky to Roberto to the volunteer art teacher Ellie Stern to the dog Mars to Dorothea herself, suffers physically and emotionally and must deal with the extreme physical and emotional suffering of others.

Some of the characters respond better than others, but even the most emotionally competent among them can make errors of judgement when the stakes are high or their resistance is low. On this level, Dorothea Dreams is a meditation on the infinite variety of human frailty and the breakdown of even the toughest character’s coping skills in the face of death. For a domestic-realist, this would have been enough. But Suzy has also written into Dorothea Dreams a political thriller about a corrupt corporation pressuring a long-established Latino neighborhood out of existence and a young man’s coming-of-age and a portrait of the artist as an aging woman. Oh, and a truly creepy ghost story.

In fact, I would claim that Dorothea Dreams is a true interstitial novel, drawing on the themes and conventions of multiple genres in a way that is far more common now than in 1987. Like Dorothea’s wall, writing it was a risky move. But the best art comes from taking risks, as Dorothea’s dying friend Ricky suggests in his response to her telling him that she has destroyed a series of sketches because they were too disturbing:
“If you’re lucky enough to have visions to set down, you shouldn’t complain that they aren’t pretty or soothing or entertaining enough for you. You should have the courage of your gifts, but instead you’ve denied your own creative impulse.”
Suzy has the courage of her gifts, all right, even when they burden her with visions that are ugly, troubling, and upsetting. In every piece she’s written, from Walk to the End of the World to The Furies and “Beauty and the Opera, or the Phantom Beast,” she demonstrates her lack of interest in the pretty and the soothing. What Suzy is interested in is nothing less than beauty and truth, even if they’re unfashionable subjects and even if they take her to uncomfortable places.---from Delia Sherman's introduction to Dorothea Dreams

We plan to launch it at WisCon. But of course I'll keep you all posted about when it will be available through Aqueduct's website.

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