George Ttoouli reviews Ivy Alvarez's Disturbance (Seren, 2013)Poetry
Time taken to read: 90min
Time taken to review: 1hr (plus about 10min editing)
Where found: a freebie, possibly sent for review by Seren when I was reviews-editing for another journal.
Transparency: I read the first twenty pages of this a couple of years ago and it has stuck with me, so I'm returning to it now. I know nothing about the author beyond what's on the book. Seren sent quite a few books for review for the other journal, more than I could accommodate. Many triggered some interesting thinking, and now I've reclaimed some head-space for myself, I'm revisiting.
Disturbance is “an imaginative retelling of and a response to actual events” according to the statement on the verso page; “Names, actions and thoughts of the characters are products of the author's imagination and are used fictitiously.” So there's the first challenge of this book: it's using fact to authenticate the poetry in a way that forces you to tread a fine line between thinking 'do I buy this?' and 'these events were really awful.'
Holding that unresolvable in mind, here's the rough shape of the book: poem by poem, it's a multi-vocal panorama of points of view connected to a domestic double-murder/suicide. Each poem is formally shaped to indicate different characters connected to the crime. Some are sequences in connected voices – the four policemen – others are sequences by the same speaker – most notably the murderer and his wife.
Plot synopsis: following the filing of divorce by his wife, an abusive husband and father of two (a (teenage?) boy and a daughter who is absent at university at the time) secretly copies the key to his mistress' gun cabinet, steals her shotgun and shells, then murders his son, his wife and then himself. This is bleak, realist material and while the characters are named (fictitiously, as mentioned in the verso statement), the events translate simultaneously into horror and a replicated, generic crime of passion. [*]
On first read, the structure evoked a similarly structured project, Ann Beattie's Mr Nobody At All. Published with an issue of McSweeney's Quarterly as a stand-alone novella, Beattie's collection of prose eulogies at the wake of a completely ordinary man by members of his local community is tonally completely different. It's a gentle comedic farce, carefully and consistently delivered. The traditional use of prose also allows for a far more believable construction of voice, character, actions, dialogue, etc. than Disturbance aims for.
The association, however, also demonstrates Alvarez's ambitions. Disturbance offers the emotional anatomy of a crime too terrible to make sense of. A recurring theme in the first half of the book, spoken by neighbours, police, and quested after and filled in by the journalist, is that they “don't know what could have set him off” ('A neighbouring farmer'). And this is the gap that runs through the whole book and, no doubt, the true events: why did he do it? Instead of answering this question, it features prominently and becomes a central thread through the nightmare maze of fear, horror, disgust – and love, at times.
The bonds between husband and wife, father and children, are completely broken, but there is a strange moment when the mistress speaks fondly of him in ways that no one else can. Even this, however, is retrospectively removed, in 'The Mistress Speaks': “You think you know a man. / I guess I didn't.” The gap in knowing rewrites the bond between lovers. Even the journalist fails to fill in the gap, though claiming, “I write down what they say / and sometimes what's unsaid” ('The Journalist Speaks II').
I have many problems with the execution of the book. Being poetry, rather than plot-driven prose, the medium struggles to carry the essential details of the crime. Exposition straddles the monologues awkwardly. Poetry (with a capital P) has to keep declaring itself through rhymes, despite a sense of the intention being that the collection wants to capture everyday speech, to retain realism.
And yet, the voices are mostly the same. The formal structures of each are highly inventive (I'll talk more about this below), but ultimately there's no syntactical modulation and the daughter, the son, the priest, the murderer, the policemen and detective all seem to blend together as one voice. This voice isn't a spoken voice; to begin, there's a lot of factual detail; this gives way to abstract emotional detail; then there's the reflective attempts to make sense of what's happened; and metaphor intrudes regularly, disrupting the veracity of spoken living. So, while the project as a whole captivated me, the delivery of each slice was often unsatisfying, disrupted.
On the other hand, the structural work is surprising and worked well for me. The part that captured me most was at the end, the murder of the son. In the real events, as I understand through the book: the husband arrives, at night, at the family home, the mother and son see him coming. The son goes out to meet the father and try to stop him entering the house. The father loads his shotgun. The son starts running away and his gunned down. Then shot again and again. The mother calls the police and the operator hears the later shotgun blasts and stays on the line as the mother hides in the house.
It's terrifying in itself, but this moment is delivered over and over again in the book. Firstly, the son's point of view, in 'Tom', a prose poem in the dead son's voice. Then, in 'Witness', from the mother's perspective in the house. In 'Tony and Tom' the scene is retold in the third person, watching the interaction between father and son. Most bizarre of all, 'See Jane Run' retells the mother's version in third person, but in the style of a Dick and Jane book. (This is the most effective variance of style in the book, and it feels to me like a fairly easy decision and would have worked better if it had been backed up by more stylistic range throughout.)
The repetition of the event builds the horror. The whole of the book comes together for me at that point. Disturbance, with its subtle, police-report connotations, sets out to disturb the emotionless facts of official reports. It's a strange constellation, structurally very well organised to create emotional peaks and breaks, while also retaining a sense of serial simultaneity: time doesn't run in a straight line through these poems and the fluidity of how the events are retold draws out the emotional terror and sadness.
Some of the phrasing might be marvellous if it were given breathing space, if the collection as a whole didn't put so much pressure on (as the book blurb puts it) trying to be “a novel in verse”. The poems in the voice of the murderer, for example, are heavily woven with the colour “red”, but also offer such strikingly weird images and off rhymes as, “this is the dark / I know / chasing me / down the road / the double-tongued bark” (sixth part of 'Tony'). That darkness is an evil, chasing the poet, the reader, along this road, through the collection: the massive, unspoken, Why?
These moments of poetic energy are a little too buried by the need to carry the plot forward, to accrue energy through structure. Emotionally, Disturbance is a hard read. As poetry, it's a flawed read. But it's that energy that arrives through structure, both through the whole series and the use of shapes on the page to indicate different voices in individual poems, which captivated me most. That structure offers a kind of meaning to me: that of how hard it is to make sense of the senseless; the only option is retelling, in the hope narrative might bring meaning, even when it can't.
[*] I note the awkwardness of choosing this book as the second in a review series called 'shotgun reviews'. It didn't occur to me until I sat down to read it through from the beginning, that this might be problematic. Nothing intentional in the association. There was likely a subconscious link when I started the review series and began thinking of books I'd overlooked and wanted to return to, but nothing crass intended (for a change).