Book Review: The House Enters the Street (Gretchen E. Henderson)
Reviewed by Michael Northen
Gretchen E. Henderson's recent novel, The House Enters the Street (Starcherone Books, 2012) is a one of a kind book. No one who read her inventive Galerie de Difformité would have expected anything less. Where Galerie was built around an architecture that extended the gallery in time and space, The House Enters the Street, capitalizes on her background in classical music. This is not to say that Henderson has abandoned her concern for art — indeed the title, the cover painting, and several strands within the novel owe themselves to a familiarity with visual art — but the framework of her latest book is structured around musical concepts of theme. It's a framework with which Henderson actually seems much more at home and, as a result, this novel is, for the most part, much less self-conscious.
Before a reader reaches the novel itself, she passes through several layers each of which hints that this is not going to be a linear read. A photograph of Umberto Boccioni's futuristic painting "The Street Enters the House" occupies the cover, next she passes the book's epigraph from Marco Polo's writings, a plate showing the Guidonian Hand from a fifteenth century Italian codex, a list of modulations in Latin and a passage quoted from Boccioni about the title painting. As enticing as the artifacts along this entrance way are, on a first pass, the best course for most readers is to avoid the siren's call and dive right into the novel.
The first story in the novel is labeled, Famuli tuorum, the first of the previously listed modulations. It begins with an imperative sentence in the rarely used second person voice. The "you" of this story is a musician who has experienced a neurological condition that has made it impossible for her to use her hands to play the piano, write, or perform many daily functions. After she learns that the degenerative process of her body has stopped and begins the process of physical therapy, she has to reinvent herself. The process begins when, in a museum bookstore, she sees a volume open to "The Street Enters the House." Following up on the suggestions of friends, she decides to use voice activation to write her own story, "a story that stops and starts, stops and restarts, modulating, because the end keeps changing." The chapter ends:
At least you can speak. You fall asleep, reimagining the story and how to tell it, in media res, beginning with the young woman who wasn't crying from sadness, beginning with her, the one saying goodbye to her old self, the one who's going home:
This first chapter is only eight pages long – something that could easily be read on a coffee break — but I've dwelt on it to illustrate the disguised complexity of Henderson's book. Even for a reader who immediately picks up that - reminiscent of John Barthes' early work - this first section is a frame tale and the entire book is going to be a story about the nature of story, much of what is happening in the first chapter is going to go unnoticed on a first read. Henderson is a careful craftsperson and what might be taken by the linear-minded reader for rococo decoration distracting from the narrative, rarely is.
The second narrative, with the heading Ut queant laxis, shifts to third person voice and an unnamed "she" who circulates through the mazes of an art museum in a quest to reach home. The third, Solve polluti begins the story of Scandinavian immigrants. The fourth, Resonare fibris, moves to a contemporary woman suffering from personal tragedy who continually looks backward. Each narrative begins in a different modulation, incorporating all of those listed at the entrance to the narrative. These strands interweave, forming the book in the way that themes and variations form a musical composition, stopping, starting modulating.
As one reads these individual stories, following how they develop, each is interesting in its own right and there is a temptation just to take one particular strand and follow it through, but this impulse is held in check by the desire to know just how these stories interconnect, believing that they are not simply placed against each other for a contrast in texture. As promised on the modulations page, about mid-way through the novel, on page 128, one hits the translations of the Latin phrases. These are literally the key. The Latin words that the reader has been encountering all along come from a medieval hymn written in honor of John the Baptist, of which the first lines are:
Ut queant laxis Resonare fibris
The Catholic Encylopedia translates "So that your servants may, with loosened voices, resound the wonders of your deeds, clean the guilt from our stained lips, O Saint John." Henderson provides a more minimalist translation suited to the needs of her story. The significance of these lines is that they are the source of the modern diatonic scale. Each hemistitch (half line) begins on a successively higher tone and the first syllable of each of these phrases (ut, re, mi, fa, so la, si) became, with some minor changes, the names for the notes of the C scale. This "key-that-is-not" occurs in the book's Famili tuorum strand, the speaker being "you" who was searching for her voice in the first chapter:
Ut, Re Mi, Fa, Sol La, Si – not played by a harpsichord, piano or organ, but sung by an ancient voice that starts to tune something inside you. Animated as breath expires and inspires the body, you want to revive what lies dormant, to reanimate what is dying or merely asleep – or what was there all along, scattered in parts like Echo
And somewhat later:
Although not silent, your voice doesn't betray you this time.
"Home. They were moving. Homing." The narrator says of her characters. Each of them — you, she, the Scandinavian immigrants, Avra — is trying to find their way home, and as each strand of the book ends, it protagonist finds themselves approaching home. None of these paths home are direct. In their own ways, each is like the "she" of the Ut queant laxis narrative who wanders in a maze of history and cultures in the various rooms of the the Met. Henderson recreates this maze for the reader as well as, for example, using the Barthesian device of having Avra, a character in the story being written by the narrator of the first story, come across a book in a bookstore called The House Enters the Street and then find the painting on the cover of that book in the art gallery (all of which, of course, occur within the pages of the book Henderson has written). Eventually, though, just as Beethoven pivots from a seemingly unrelated key back home through the circle of fifths or a wanderer in space comes across a wormhole connecting past and future, each character ends in a familiar place.
Though Henderson uses the tools of music and art, her novel is first and foremost about story telling — not just tale spinning, but the creation of one's own life, one's own story — how one invents or reinvents one's self. It is about how human beings try to construct their past and convey the story through artificial symbols like letters:
Something grafted all these lives, from letters (now lost) and torn stories (between line, in margins), until slowly Avra realized how her story, how his story (any story how yours, how mine) can grow palpable enough to be handled and mishandled, as the storyteller herself retreats somewhere in the map.
Just how all of the narrative voices and the stories they carry relate to each other is something discernable only through reading the book.
In addition to the more global themes it pursues, The House Enters the Street has a contribution to make to disability literature At least three of the characters in story have palpable disabilities. In addition to the protagonist of the first story (who may well be a stand-in for Henderson herself), there is Avra who has lost her hand in a fire and had it replaced with a foot. There is also Farr, the ancestral Scandinavian immigrant who experiences what would today be label post traumatic stress syndrome. It is to her credit that Henderson, who knows disability first hand, sticks to the portrayal of characters with acquired disabilities. The life trajectory and questions of self/identity are very different for these characters than from those with congenital disabilities like the protagonists of Terry Tracy's A Great Place for a Seizure or Jillian Weise's The Colony.
It is in the book's initial chapter, more than any other, that Henderson's book explicitly dwells on the perception of disability. As the chapter opens, a young woman is trying to make her own dinner, a can of Campbell's condensed tomato soup. After the neurological collapse of her body she is "relearning to sit, to work, to breathe, to touch, to write with a pen." The narrator observes, "The medical team committed you to an intensified program in an attempt to improve you in condensed time." This is a salvage project. Unlike the physical process which is rehabilitative, the reinvention of the self after trauma is a leaving of the old behind. The focus on self-reinvention in The House Enters the Street serves a duel purpose. It sets the stage for the larger picture of life and the creation of the future — like story — as one of reinvention, but it also has something more specific to say to people with acquired disabilities. Terms such as "recovery" and "rehabilitation" all imply the attempt to retrieve an attenuated old self from the past. But people aren't cans of condensed tomato soup. Such attempts are always backward-looking, compensatory, and focusing on loss. Re-invention, on the other hand, is forward-looking. It's not about scaling Mt. Everest in a wheelchair to validate an outworn image. Re-invention is what all of us do — must do — if we are not to ossify.
To my mind, Henderson is one of the most creative and rewarding contemporary writers one can read. Those who experienced Galerie de Difformité, may have (despite its serious intent) dismissed it as a complex curiosity, asking themselves, "What can she possibly follow this up with?" Henderson has given us two answers. One is Of Marvelous Things Heard (Green Lantern Press, 2011), her small volume of aphoristic pensees, that reflect on the nature of music, language and silence. The other is The House Enters the Street. Both are well worth reading. The former provides grist for reflection. The latter demonstrates her skill as a storyteller and her ability to involve the reader on many levels. It is not a book for whom reading is an escape or an antidote for a frustrating day at the office. No book review, in a few paragraphs, is going to do justice to the complexity of its architecture. For those who care about literature and are willing to devote time, intellect and many dashes to Wikipedia, however, it will prove disproportionately rewarding.