“Draining the Sea was less about exploring character and more about how in language trauma sustains itself and manifests. It was a ‘language-driven’ book: strange and repetitious and seeking the unknown at the edge of the known world.” This is how Micheline Aharonian Marcom describes Draining the Sea, her longest and most challenging published novel. “Language-driven” is the key phrase here, because the novel is largely plot-less, frustrating in its pacing, circuitous in its structure, and at times senseless as its nameless narrator negates and reimagines his story. The narrator himself, a puzzling and off-putting man, affirms that the book is “unreadable,” yet justifies it by saying “I have fallen into this book like a man falls into his birth” (274). In spite of itself, Draining the Sea is a transformative read, eliciting deep inquiry from its oft called upon “Reader” regarding history, material culture, sex, desire, death, and the limits of language. But a question remains, if this is a “language-driven” book (which a general argument could be made that most written books are—driven by a need to convey something in language), how is this one distinctive?
Draining the Sea is a story of a haunting—of sorts. Set in late-1990s or early-2000s Los Angeles, it takes the form of a long mediation or “essay,” as the narrator calls it, on the memory of Marta, a young Guatemalan woman who was raped and tortured during the Ixil Triangle genocide, carried out in 1982 by order of General José Efraín Río Montt. During the genocide, more than 200,000 indigenous Guatemalans (“rural peasantry”) were killed or “disappeared,” and more than one million were displaced. In the narrator’s mind, this scorched earth campaign to silence a minority in Guatemala is akin to the suffering his own Armenian family endured in the early 1900s, when the Ottoman government conducted a systematic extermination of 1.5 million Armenians. (The Turkish government still denies this took place.)
Genocide is the connection between the narrator and Marta. Yet Marta experiences it firsthand, the narrator doesn’t; in fact, he laments often about how little he knows about his family and his heritage, how he cannot find his way into his family’s story. Marta becomes a kind of unwelcomed proxy, and her trauma a type of lens to witness (and re-witness) carnage on a genocidal level. Much of the novel is taken up with the narrator’s reimagining her rape and torture, and the execution of Marta’s family. He fantasizes about being her torturer and lover, the two of them becoming a kind of new Eve and Adam.
Important to note, the other thing we know about the narrator is that his wife has left him after a miscarriage. He also seems to be collecting the corpses of stray dogs killed alongside California Interstate 405. The corpse collecting, a reverberating image linked to the narrator’s obsession with genocide, is perhaps the only action that takes place in the novel that isn’t within the narrator’s “theater of the mind” (5).
At the core of the novel are two sets of phrases, which are simple, sparse, and unrevealing. Here is what the narrator says about these phrases early on in the novel, written in his stream-of-consciousness and idiosyncratic style: “I would like to get beneath the phrases as if beneath water, and unravel the birds the mountains and find there discover the interstices of histories, our, flesh” (16). The first set is the lone legacy he has of his family—the story of their disappearance (and presumably their death) in the Armenian Genocide, as told in his mother’s five short statements:
They came for her father in the middle of the night.
She never saw him again.
Her mother and sisters were sent on the march to the Der Zor.
They passed beneath her window.
She never saw them again. (268)
These sentences frustrate the narrator because they tell him what happened to his grandparents and aunt but tell him nothing about what he wants to know—they lack a depth of narrative, perhaps, or as he puts it: these phrases do “not give him the full of it, the it of it” (268).
The other phrases he wants to get beneath are those in a news article about murders in a Guatemalan village. The short report is very professional, but of the forgettable sort, below the fold, World News section stuff:
An armed band attacked four isolated villages in northern Guatemala’s Quiche province and killed more than 200 people by cutting their throats, a local official said Thursday. The official said some of the dead were decapitated. (131)
Set in juxtaposition to the paucity of these two sets of “phrases” is the savage chaos of the narrator’s mind, which splices concepts, stories, histories, and critiques together without regard for clarity or logic. It is this cognitive mayhem—and linguistic vibrancy!—that dominates Draining the Sea:
The clouds lie low on the mountains; it rains today in Acul; it is cold and your unshod feet are cold and the cuxín fruit is sweeter in your mouth than the last season in this sentence so I’ll do it: I’ll make you from these phrases (make me also); the making of Americans from a particular order of words, syllable sounds, inside the sentences which killers, our deaths, and it is a tedious facile business—why isn’t it beautiful and kind? why is to make in America also to kill in America? I am seeking the old spoors and days via this tongue. (19)
One of the narrator’s utmost concerns is the destructive nature of language. About the news report, he says to Marta: “Do you see how we undo you in our News, if we write you in the News we unwrite you” (130). Yet he says something similar of his own narrative: “how these sentences, my own phrases, cover you up more than reveal you” (130–31). There is an ironic distrust in this novel of words and sentences. Neologisms are created and rules of punctuation unheeded in an attempt to “create” and reach Marta—ultimately, for naught, as he says, “I don’t know what anything means anymore, Marta. I detest words (these) phrases . . .” (171). Yet he continues ad nauseam ordering and re-ordering the events and experiences in a search to find them a meaning. He retells the story so often that the reader can’t help but feel pity for him when he says to his beloved, “we will be together here in this book” (166). His essay is a sorry vehicle for crossing time and space, yet it is the only one he has.
Another way in which the novel is “language-driven” is in how the manipulation of language develops as a source of tension, both for the reader and the narrator. In addition to his distrust of words, our unreliable narrator sows a considerable amount of doubt into his essay. Many times the reader progresses through twenty or thirty pages believing something to be true only to have it questioned or negated. Did the narrator go to Guatemala to see firsthand Marta’s village or, as he asks midway through, has he “made up that man who traveled to your country in this essay” (155)? What about the corpse collecting? Toward the end of the novel, he asks, “And have I, Marta, collected the copses in reality? or have I simply sat in my green and sun-faded armchair thinking the smells while the black flies made their party in the hot afternoon sun? Have I loved you, really?” (288). What does a statement like the following mean for the whole book:
Marta you have not existed for me, although I dreamed once of a girl whose brown and sad look looked at me from a yellow and white barred window on the Pan American Highway and I wanted to save her, didn’t know the highway, your country, only that look from the metal trellis. (310)
Or when he says: “You could only be a thing of my imagination, Marta, because you don’t exist in books of History or the newspaper articles or what I can see on the television or in my school lessons . . .” (172). Is this to say that Marta is only a figment of the narrator’s imagination—that the novel is an exercise in ginned-up emotion? These questions and statements by the narrator certainly disrupt our expectations and reveal the novel to be a kind of simulation of trauma.
Some clues to the narrator’s pattern of thought might be found in the novel’s central indictment: America and American culture. Lies, in the form of words and images, surround the narrator, inundate him, especially in his youth, and in many ways they try to confirm and consecrate an order. Without much searching, however, he finds his country to be nothing more than simulacra. He takes America to task for its racism (against African Americans), for its cruel foreign policy (selling to the Guatemalan government the very weapons that will be used to murder Marta’s family), for its nation-building and privilege (“Do you envy the peasant his form in your magazines for the lithe and beautiful sufferers?” (161). This leads to an insight that “America doesn’t exist,” it’s just another word:
The nation is a thing made of ether, made by men, make: confidence, polities, policies; decree girls, races, infidels, the souls of the living and all of our progress as soul’d men,—this drive, this project, ideas which continue apace like a sound without end;—and faith? and a man writ large on pages of notes, a poetry for his progress; a dead end. (13)
But his assessment doesn’t end there, and he goes on to show America in the form of a monster that destroys men’s souls:
What is this place, Marta? a new underworld, a place that is no-place, and inhabited by the half-deads; more violent, passive: monsters of derision, of shame, of unsexed and sexed-out loneliness: of more information and less knowing; of games and Shows and picture magazines of how to live! eat! run! parceled out like sweet pops; we are more than lonely; we are shy, quiet liars, killers—of ourselves—the sort that hate the dogs and whores the Indian and we made ourselves and our rules here and the money rules here: make the world, the word: this Right into a dollared sign like a green faggot; we are always afraid. (129)
He also blames the “American Way” for the distortion and loss of his heritage and ancestral language:
I killed them [his Armenian family] without trying, they died the death of the American dream: of ignorance of forgetting of fast-cars -love -foods: moving-going fun: a fast-death (within one generation, within one boy, in LA). I don’t remember any of them (my grandmother), their language (Armenian), and songs (sad), and I like ice cream, and to be entertained! (58)
Ultimately, it’s American culture that keeps him passive, keeps him in his armchair despite the realization that it’s fake: “I watch them; I watch television and I too am dying. And happy sedated for the duration of the Show” (221). A counterfeit culture produces counterfeit feelings, to paraphrase D. H. Lawrence, which are in turn expressed in words here. What does it matter if he contradicts himself? Words are everything and nothing. There is an insidious nihilism at work in his essay.
American culture, as depicted in Draining the Sea, is a force: “the terror of modern History has made us into its subjects” (274). These thoughts echo Simone Weil, who writes in the essay “The Iliad, or the Poem of Force” that force “is that x that turns anybody who is subjected to it into a thing.” The tragedy here is that nothing is real for the narrator except the theater of his mind (or perhaps it’s been conscripted too by the “Shows”), and nothing is true, except his sense of loss—of origins, heritage, family. As he might say, he has been “thing’d,” a verb form he employs several times about contemporary life. Among the ecstasy of his thoughts and words, is the repeated phrase that comes out clear, like a cri de cœur: “I am lost.” In fact, the word “lost” or “loss” shows up over forty times in the novel, and it manifests itself in his very existence and how he speaks. Thus it’s clear that Draining the Sea is also “language-driven” by its mimetic efforts to convey the wrecked consciousness of its narrator.
In general, Micheline Aharonian Marcom doesn’t strive for clarity in Draining the Sea but for experimentation, in an effort to move language and the novel form forward. It’s a depiction of a fallen man, trapped by the cruelty of language, in which we are trapped, too. (The novel is a closed circuit between narrator and Reader.) He calls upon his Reader many times to imagine him, to think about the questions he has asked: “What, pray, do you toss into your dreams of a night when you can no longer run from the mediocre the modicum of your life . . .” (257). He wonders about our existence. Whether we are there or if he is alone trapped in this cycle of thought. Perhaps a final way in which the novel is “language-driven” is by our willingness to read it, to engage with this narrator’s text, especially given how bloody challenging (by his own admission!) it is. He wants us to be there with him, to give a kind of succor, for him to feel “a little less lonely.” He reels us back in, time and again, in active dialogue, and ultimately in the last few pages asks us to take his and Marta’s story as our own. Should we? Could we?
The novel doesn’t propose an easy answer. In fact, one comes away with a familiar conclusion, one that Susan Sontag draws in Regarding the Pain of Others: that when we gaze upon death and war (when we simulate trauma), we cannot “come to the end of the mystery, and the indecency.” In this way, Draining the Sea struggles with an ineffable mystery. Dislodged from civility or logic, it gives us the full force of its narrator’s mind and history, and we cannot help but recoil from the fantasy we (as Americans) have allowed to be perpetrated against us. Draining the Sea stands as a prescient depiction of our increasingly confused and lonely, overfed and undernourished minds.
 Micheline Aharonian Marcom, conversation by Taylor Davis-Van Atta, Music & Literature, Issue 1, Fall 2012, 136–37.
Note: This essay is part of Big Other Folio: Micheline Aharonian Marcom.
J. S. DeYoung lives in Atlanta, Georgia. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in numerous publications, including New Orleans Review, Booth, Corium, The Los Angeles Review, Monkeybicycle, Music & Literature, and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Best American Mystery Stories 2012. He is a former Senior Editor at Numéro Cinq Magazine.