The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff

The Beginners BY Rebecca Wolff. Riverhead Hardcover. Hardcover, 304 pages. $26.
The cover of The Beginners

Poet Rebecca Wolff’s first novel, The Beginners, draws on a long lineage of American stories either riffing on witchcraft in American history (Nathaniel Hawthorne, Shirley Jackson) or witchy fairy tales (Lorrie Moore’s “The Juniper Tree,” short stories by Kelly Link and Aimee Bender). In all these works, including Wolff’s, the possibility of witchcraft looms specter-like in the background, and it’s the text’s job to parse out how deeply magic actually informs reality. The balance between fantasy and realism in The Beginners (it ultimately leans toward the latter) is its greatest sophistication, a feat that the author accomplishes by creating a split in the narrative itself. Narrating part of the book is fifteen-year-old Ginger Pritt of Wick, Massachusetts, who with her best friend, Cherry Endicott, becomes obsessed with her shadowy and possibly magic-practicing new neighbors, Raquel and Theo Motherwell. But if this adolescent perspective features scenes of nascent fabulism, such as when Ginger and Cherry “brew potions from . . . cigarette butts, pine needles, hydrogen peroxide, with a toadstool thrown in,” this sorcery is called into question by a second narrative strain: The reflections of an adult Ginger, who fifteen years later is revisiting the ruminations of her younger self. She often speaks with a reflexive self-consciousness: “At fifteen I still possessed a child’s native capacity for belief—some call it naivete but I prefer to think of it as a positive attribute, a capability—and enjoyed a commensurate appetite for phenomena in which to believe. Another appetite that diminishes as we mature.”

The plot details Raquel and Theo’s arrival in Wick, where they conduct research on Raquel’s ancestor, Sarah Goode, who was tried and killed for witchcraft. By the time Raquel and Theo settle, Ginger, a bookish, slightly Goth teen has already ingested a steady diet of Edgar Allan Poe, Bruno Bettelheim, and Salem-witch-trial history books. Though Ginger and Cherry initially become the eccentric couple’s biggest fans, Cherry eventually becomes spooked enough to submit an English essay about how “evil is something you can’t explain . . . or control.” Therefore, the plot’s tension manifests primarily as a clash between Ginger’s conflated magical and sexual fantasies and Raquel’s jaded, almost sadistic reality, filtered through Theo’s insatiable lust. Ginger’s downfall happens as she seeks to conquer—or to be conquered by—“[her] first adults.”

Wolff skillfully constructs ample metaphoric space for Ginger to investigate the transgressive overlap between desire and entrapment, through a supernatural lens. Although by chapter five Ginger is already underwhelmed by the porn magazines she finds at the café where she works, she is nevertheless taking “deflowering” lessons from them. In Ginger’s mind, sex is a hermetic power play, as devoid of real human communication as the pictures she gets off on in the café’s restroom. After viewing one set of lurid images, for example, Ginger posits that a woman “must be as impenetrable above as she is yielding below. Sex was not a shared experience . . . Sex must always carry with it, clearly, the threat of degrading one’s power, rather than enhancing it.” Ginger and Cherry become increasingly embroiled in taboo sexual experiments, goaded by the Motherwells to disregard age boundaries, which an adult Ginger justifies with a type of innocent spiritualism. “Perhaps what Theo and I had done,” she says staving off guilt-induced fear late in the story, “had not been done at all, since Raquel had not seen it with her own eyes.” Indeed, the bulk of Ginger’s adult narration scrutinizes her confusion between sexual peer pressure and her own physical urges, which she usually likens to a potent spell:

At least one citizen in my small town might have believed a spell had been successfully cast on me, in that pale green house on the hill. When we are truly under a spell we are freed from a certain natural instinct for self-preservation, and we might prick ourselves over and over, at another’s behest . . . There could be no other possible explanation but witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment. This is the simplest.

While Ginger’s febrile, teenage belief in witchcraft and the gradual disintegration of this belief defines her maturity, this clear-eyed perspective of magic—the adult gazing back at the naïve child believer—also undermines what Wolff presumably sets her wonderful coming-of-age story up to do: to allege that not every human action can be rationally explained. Throughout, everything conjures the ideal space for a real haunting to occur—the book’s setting, a town edging the Shift River Valley, “a confusion of ghost towns,” where entire villages are submerged in a reservoir; the book’s chronology, unfolding over spring and summer to crescendo just after Halloween; and Wolff’s sharp, poetic ear for similes, such as, “I felt happy, absorbed, pinioned in this tenuous equilibrium, as though we were some new kind of four-headed or four-hearted beast.” But one never feels as enchanted as the young Ginger, since Wolff almost methodically differentiates between Ginger’s “capability” to believe, and more intellectual definitions of metaphysical terminology. “Now this is what I call supernatural,” Ginger says, “times that float in recollection but are history till we reanimate them with powerful imagination.” Moments in which magic might simply remain indefinable—might be allowed to simply occupy unexplained territory—are thereby reduced to a rationale. This is only a concern if one believes, like I do, that over-explanation is a problem in contemporary American literature. If one agrees with Flannery O’Connor’s assertion in her essay collection, Mystery and Manners, where she wrote how problematic it is that “mystery is the great embarrassment to the modern mind,” then a reader might hope to glimpse mystery rearing its “four-heads” in a book about witches. But The Beginners subverts expectations here; it laments mystery as a construct that is as mystifying as Ginger’s unwieldy pubescent hormones.

The book’s impetus to tame its spiritual undertow with reason serves most of it well, especially during impending trauma. “This was no castle,” Ginger says at one point. “It was an oblong, dark, dirty room with a high ceiling, empty but for a few long, rough tables that appeared to be bolted to the brick walls.” Escapism is clearly frowned upon; this is a lesson Raquel tries with varying degrees of success to teach Ginger when she says, “Human lives are works of art. Complete with themes and leitmotif and clumsy symbolism. But we are not supposed to recognize this quality as we live them. That is what I call a curse.” With this, one reaches the book’s core message: that as much as one may wish that witchcraft is real, it isn’t. Adulthood is a trap in which self-consciousness renders one incapable of merely accepting magic at face value.

At one point, Ginger asks, “What if the women and men had been burned not as a by-product of greed, or inequality, or sheer envy or mistrust, or mind-altering grain, for that matter, but because they were witches?” By this time, the reader already has gained too much maturity to let magic whimsically answer. While I greatly admire Wolff’s careful establishment of the paradox between youthful belief and adult savvy, I feel that this story is not ultimately about the possibility of magic, as Ginger figures it. Rather, it reveals the opposite, the tragedy of magic’s impossibility. Even Wolff ponders this conundrum in chapter one:

The simplest explanation for any phenomenon is usually the correct one . . . A witch is a woman with an enemy or two. Is this simple enough to sustain us? I ask you.

With a pragmatic understanding of witches, it’s as if Wolff’s story reaches a conclusion that she isn’t particularly charmed by: A witch is just a woman with an enemy or two. Her scrupulous honesty in exploring the supernatural—what sustains it, and what it can do for us—is frightening in itself; it’s the product of a marvelous imagination, and it’s what keeps us reading.

Trinie Dalton’s books include Sweet Tomb (Madras Press, 2010). Her next story collection, Baby Geisha, will be published by Two Dollar Radio in January.