Garnering polarizing responses from its readers, Anne Michaels' 1996 Fugitive Pieces is a Vox Dei novel (the people may as well be from a different universe, novel characters or readers). Precious, obscurely suggestive, hightoned and flatlined: these and many other dismissive adjectives can be applied to the book, but what really made me, by turns, laugh or groan was the unnecessary historical and archaeological detail. Pages of dry sourcebook ruminations on limestone and flora and bioluminescent gardens are included, of course, in an attempt to comment on the protagonist's submerged flickering-light soul struggles. Metaphor has rarely been this ambitious and abstract. The other reason for the geological main hall lectures? Well, after all that background reading, whether from personal interest or from necessary planning from a novel outline, it's tempting to brag to the readership that you've browsed more than a book or two, maybe even thought about its contents. Novel concept!
The instruction isn't always about sea foam and gypsum blossoms, though. Bare names are splashed across the page as if by their solemn intonation alone they conferred upon their author an open-ended gravitas:
"There were many volumes of poetry, more than I remembered, as well as Athos' lessons: Paracelsus, Linnaeus, Lyell, Darwin, Mendeleev. Field guides. Aeschylus, Dante, Solomos."
One character in the entire book -- Alex -- remotely resembled a human being. The others were eidolons, in both main meanings of the word. With that in mind, the sex scenes between Jakob and Michaela were hilarious, unintentionally so, because nothing in this book is meant to be funny, not even the dialogue puns. Body parts are touched in amazement: hands, arms, skull, femurs, sacrum, sternum, ears, feet, forehead, damp hair, hipbone, calves, eyes, wrists, pelvis. But no cock! (This is narrated by a man.) His selflessness is not only unbelievable, it's offensive. Who would want to make love with an out-of-body soul-merger? The foreplay? "I hear her small voice -- long phrases of music and stillness like an oar balanced in its arc above the water, dripping silver."
At least suggestion and self-importance in poetry is over in 90 emaciated pages. It's not as if there's a narrative in Fugitive Pieces that has to be filled in.