Jul 7 2010

Death Is Not an Option by Suzanne Rivecca

Abigail Deutsch

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Death Is Not an Option:


by Suzanne Rivecca

W. W. Norton & Company

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Death Is Not an Option, Suzanne Rivecca’s lively, often lovely debut collection, explores how the blind lead the blind. In the tender story “It Sounds Like You’re Feeling,” a blind counselor with a guide dog makes a patient wonder what would happen if the canine lost his vision: “Would another, smaller creature be assigned to it, something with excellent eyesight, a trained raptor maybe, that would lead the way with the dog behind it and [the counselor] behind the dog, the caravan growing and growing as they all aged and deteriorated, on and on like a series of Russian nesting dolls?”

The patient is a mental-health help-line intern deemed by coworkers as “not psychologically equipped to deal with the chronically impaired.” She tells her counselor that she has trouble “sticking to the script” of the help-line (which includes suggesting, with puzzling and insulting vehemence, that callers take baths). Rivecca’s book is full of teachers, priests, and social workers: people who, relying on professional scripts, should know how to help the rest of us. Yet they constantly find themselves in scenes so complex—layered with guilt and affection and anger—that they flub their lines.

So, too, do the characters who seek help, many of whom are halfhearted Catholics contending with their religious upbringings. Rivecca’s volume can be read as a study of secular confessions: the way we describe our suffering, and when it is better to remain silent. In one of her sharpest stories, “Very Special Victims,” an uncle sexually violates his niece. On a deeper level, the story is about saying uncle—declaring that enough is enough. The victim, Kath, eventually tells her parents about the abuse, but for years afterwards contemplates the wisdom of confessing: “What was the point of it all, this exhaustive cycle of call-and-response, disclosure and reaction?” While examining the nuances of victimhood, Rivecca uses disconcerting images in elegant symmetry. The uncle orgasms; Kath wets her bed. Later, she takes Communion, only to spit it out “in a glorious arc, like a cherub in a fountain, straight into the air.”

This pattern of images allows the niece and the uncle, abused and abuser, to blur together. When Kath touches herself, she does so as if she were him: “She plunged a hand down her undershirt and was moved almost to tears by the chamois softness of her torso. . . . She thought, This is what he liked.” In Rivecca’s account of the blind counselor, vulnerability seemed contagious; in this story, it is predation that is catching.

Later in life, Kath maintains a double identity as willing and unwilling victim. The abuse literature informs her that many victims hold themselves responsible. Yet when Kath attests that the experience was, for her, one of “collusion”—an endeavor she helped form and that formed her in turn—she doesn’t seem typical, but rather, self-aware. She recalls her uncle’s “affectionate casualness that proved her lightness, her doll-like simplicity.” She realizes, when her uncle visits her home, “that she belonged in this kitchen with this man, that she was born here and would die here and that there was no other scenario in which she could ever be so wholly herself.” Pain in Rivecca’s work is bittersweet, transformative, and unforgettable.

Rivecca’s strongest protagonists are stuttering spokeswomen for the weak. In the gorgeous story “None of the Above,” a schoolteacher named Alma—whose name means “nourishing”—ponders a raccoon attack on a child. Alma “began to inhabit, by degrees, the child’s agony, the ink-black well of wordless victimhood.” Rivecca, too, inhabits that moment of panicked vision and, to miraculous effect, finds words for the wordless.

Abigail Deutsch’s criticism has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Village Voice, n+1, Poetry, and other publications.