By Gabriel Blackwell
Narrative is a container, a relatively narrow runnel into which we decant the weather-purified stuff of a much more oceanic, if not in fact infinite, consciousness. It is sweet, potable as that ocean is not, and we thirst for it as we do not for more consciousness—think of the scant few hours between ruling and rest in which Shahryar sipped Scheherazade’s SOS’s, or the dregs of the wine-addled attentions upon which Homer practiced his mnemonics. How much rarer and more precious then, the book, a narrative free (or at any rate, free-er) of recursions and corrections, less a river than a jug, in which we can always see at least the shadow of how much more we have left until it is empty, how long it will take to get what’s coming to us, even if we cannot (shadow, after all) always see what precisely is coming, or when. Every book holds us in suspense.
Perhaps it is, as Cassandra Brooks, the narrator of Bradford Morrow’s The Diviner’s Tale, tells us, that “names are doors to ideas.” Doors, as in “what’s behind that…”?
We don’t always want to know; sometimes we are better off leaving names out of it, passing the door by. As Cassandra, lost as her mirror-image charge, Laura, searches for her own door in the wilds of the novel’s Corinth County (none of the names here are anything but carefully fitted to their respective portals—Corinth, the seat of Agamemnon, future husband of classical Cassandra, was the birthplace of the couple’s twin sons, twinned here in Cassandra’s twin sons, Morgan and Jonah, neither named without proper measurements taken), we divine that the remark is really meant for her more than us. Yes, of course, there is a famous Cassandra: the prophetess of war and death (always death, the easiest fate to foretell), she was cursed by Apollo never to be believed. Some said serpents had licked her ears clean—she heard the gossip of the gods, but the grain of salt she carried with her made it a bitter pill to swallow. What ideas behind that door? The novel is the thing.
Cassandra here somehow looks forward to her past. Not only everyone else, but even Cassandra herself doubts what she sees. Is it that the doors are hung wrong? Or perhaps that there is no current, hence no future, no past? With only 20 pages to go, the shadow growing and the well emptying, we may find our minds wandering, wondering, “How can this possibly be wrapped up in only 20 pages?” Perhaps we doubt, refuse to believe that it can. At that point in the story, we still haven’t so much as knocked on the door of our masked man—though we might suspect his address—nor have we secured a sound(ing) rod to find our way to the flow beneath us, what our verdant plot promises. We all come from dust and return to it, and so our lives are spent self-irrigating, in search of the one thing that will stave off a return to the drought of the Void. And Morrow does not begrudge us satisfaction: our thirst will be slaked.
Turning a bottle over (perhaps to examine its character (kharakter), a word derived from the ancient Greek stamp that marked a vessel as the product of a particular potter), we ought to be confident that we will not just empty its contents out onto our shoes, thence into the soil. Similarly, when we upend our narrative by closing it out, put our stamp on our container, our worry must be the same: how can this cap, this last 20 pages, hold in the contents of the jug, when the ratio of one to the other so clearly favors the liquid over the solid? It must fit snugly, that is, be made for the purpose. And it must be fastened tightly—even the most form-fitting lid will leak if it is threaded or seated carelessly. The clumsy threadings of the typical suspense novel usually seem to fit securely but, with time, we find that there is nothing left in the bottle—we return to wet our whistle but taste only stale air; those waters have emptied into the greater river, poisoned once again with salt. The solution to the mystery, such as it is, has holes. Is there some correlation of satisfaction to mysteries left unsolved, if still somehow concluded?
With the precious waters of a deeper stream, one hidden to all but Cassandra Brooks, it certainly seems so. Tantalus does not enter into it: it is not a question of tease, but of taste. This (The Diviner’s Tale) is not a Mason jar, manufactured by the hundreds, meant to hold whatever one might care to slop into it, not a whodunit or procedural—this story is an altogether more unstable compound, one that leaks not liquid but vapor, that evaporates and loses potency with exposure. It is a heady brew, rich as it is in the waters of so many hidden rivers, the myths of the whole of Western civilization. If, as some have proposed, the original mystery is Oedipus Rex, then surely the corresponding fount for the novel of suspense is Cassandra. Ignorance, after all, is bliss; it is knowledge, and the worry that may come with it, that puts us on edge, at the edge of the map, in an ocean undrinkable, hoping for messages in bottles or at least some fresh water.