The Authentic in Fiction: Aris Janigian’s Bloodvine (Part 2 of 2)

Janigian is at his most lyrical when describing the land the brothers are fighting over and the wider landscape of the San Joaquin Valley, sometimes in ominous detail (270): Patches of black clouds lay in the green foothills[,] while above them, white clouds, soft and fleshy, folded themselves into pockets. Still higher in the sky, the clouds traveled slowly in great caravans heavy with their charges, towing heir bulky shadows along with them. In other instances, Janigian displays a keen eye for detail, such as in this early scene, describing Abe walking into his house, during the bishop’s exorcism (12): "He is cleansing the house of evil spirits," the wife whispered. Evil spirits? Abe bowed his head and crossed his arms over his stomach. "Shhh," she said, as though Abe’s puzzlement was audible. But even such details, and the moving descriptions of the landscape, when repeated in various ways throughout the novel, seem less lyrical than repetitive. Janigian spends a good deal of time describing the mundane details of farming life, punctuated by the "crude" speech of farmers, barhops, family members. But we are often left to wonder for what purpose. Unfortunately, even the biblical parallels made at the beginning and at the end of the novel are never developed in a clear and compelling way, and the novel eventually loses its hold on the story and its details and seems more confined than liberated by its promising premise. The logic of that premise unwinds itself slowly, inevitably, with only occasional glimpses of depth or complexity, until nearly everything in the novel seems either weighed down by its ponderous purpose or adrift in uneven, sometimes inconsequential, prose. As a result, the novel begins to plod along a little less than halfway through, as though hoping to generate momentum through the various descriptions themselves. The descriptions that proliferate in the novel, therefore, often get the better of the story. Many of the book’s less successful momen’s are a result of Janigian giving in a little too much to his penchant for metaphor and comparison. In the crucial moment after Abe threatens Andy and asks him to leave their land for good, Andy considers what it means, and we are told: "when a man is in the clutch of such unknowns, time thickens, time turns into a beehive, palpable and agonizingly porous" (265). The phrases here are awkward and oddly misplaced. Why should time be a "beehive," and why are we to imagine that it is "porous"? In other instances, it is difficult to see what purpose a comparison serves at all. When Andy is confused by the reaction of a prostitute he meets, we read the following simile: "This was like giving a photograph to a blind man and getting upset that he didn’t appreciate it. Even after he told you he was blind, even after you saw that he lived among the blind, in a blind world." (43). In yet other cases, the description could simply benefit from more or better editing, such as when we see Andy making his early morning drive to work the land (262): The fog was all around him, and though he moved, there was no sense of distance covered, as though he were churning in place, like the toy car rides at the circus. The whiteness of the fog made him vaguely dizzy, and gnats of light swarmed in the periphery of his vision, and he could only guess how far he’d come, which caused him to wonder how well he knew those roads after all. Janigian crafts the description well, giving us a sense of Andy’s mood, not only at this moment but more generally. But the passage also exhibits the writer’s occasional inability to exhibit restraint and his tendency of saying too much. An additional result of these inconsistencies is that the thrust of the story is sometimes overwhelmed by details, so that even the subtler ones are not given their due. A perfect example is an interesting parallel between the descriptions of two very different characters, Abe and the prostitute mentioned earlier. Both are described as agitated and nervous, barely able to sit still. When Andy and Abe sit on the porch early in the novel, we see that "Abe pulled up a chair and sat on the edge, as if he might soon have to leave" (19). A few pages later, we see Andy reluctantly visiting a whorehouse. The woman he meets there, once she finds out Andy only wants some company, is described in almost identical terms as Abe: we are told that "she sat on the edge, like she might have to go at any second," presumably to talk with more promising clients (42). The descriptions together form a kind of word picture, a visible symbol of "displacement," of people whose itinerant nature has made them unable to sit still in their own seatsAbe as a second-generation farmer struggling to survive and the prostitute as someone moving restlessly from one client to the next. The parallel phrasing imagines a fate shared by two people from entirely different walks of life. For a brief moment, the "immigrant experience" belongs to the local as much as to the Armenian. But perhaps this is reading too much into an otherwise accidental parallel. Unfortunately, without the novelist’s sure hand guiding us, we are left to ponder the coincidence on our own. The effect carries through the entire novel. Perhaps we are meant to see the metaphorical grafting of old vines to new, ancient land to modern, as a different representation of the family itselfAbe’s family having been "grafted" unnaturally to Andy’s by way of Yervant’s marriage. The issue of birthright in the biblical parallels seems to point here. Andy’s given name, for instance, is Antranik ("first-born," in Armenian). And although he is not his mother’s first-born son, the fact that he is his father’s eldest seems to compel him, despite himself, to live up to his name and form a family of his own. Numerous parallels such as these exist. But very few of them are tied together or developed convincingly. The most glaring example here is the final "betrayal" in the novel, when Abe walks up to Andy, shotgun by his side, and seems to threaten him into leaving their land for good (264): "You’ve got nothing left here," Abe says. "It’s over." There is a certain hysteria in his voice, a kind of panic. There’s Andy, looking down the barrel of a shotgun. . . . "All right, Abe," Andy says. Abe drops the gun to his side, slowly, like he might lift it up again. Andy doesn’t know if he’s shivering from the cold or the uncanniness of it all or both. Already he knows, even before he’s out of harm’s way, that nothing will ever match this moment. This long-anticipated "moment" in the novel, when it arrives, is oddly devoid of significance, symbolic or otherwise, or a compelling connection to the themes of home or birthright. Fixated as it is on the mundane fact of the shotgun itself, the passage comes across as neither epic nor even particularly profound, descending instead into melodrama, a simple spat between two brothers. The passage tells us that this is indeed a momentous event but fails to show us that it is so. Later in the novel, Abe will get his comeuppance of sorts, losing his sanity for a time and, some weeks later, spilling his blood on a vine after crashing his tractor into the post holding it up, which leads to his death. That post, it turns out, is the same one next to which Abe threatened his brother. The symbolic point is made, but far too late to generate thematic or dramatic tension. Aris Janigian’s Bloodvine represents a strong first effort and a promising start to a writing career. But the novel’s flaws also say as much about the future of English-language Armenian literature as they do about Janigian’s own career. The concerns mentioned above are not insurmountable. The novel’s only unforgivable offense, in fact, is its characterization of Zabel and her mother, Angel. With their connivances, superstitions and constant stream of akhhs, they are little more than caricatures. This final point brings us full circle, back to the issue we started withthe novel’s status as fiction. We can now recast that statement as the novel’s view of its own "authenticity," in other words, its relationship to the diasporan Armenian experience in all its complexity, from the historical Genocide to the fictional spirits haunting Angel’s memory. A final excerpt from the novel related to this point will help us conclude. A third of the way through the novel, the brothers meet with an attorney named Saroyan, who turns out to be a "distant cousin" of "this writer Saroyan" (89). When the three sit down in his office, the attorney suggests that his more famous relative is only interested in talking about "Armenians, old-time Armenian things that only an odar would be interested in. What the hell do I need to hear about Armenians?," the attorney lamen’s. "I’ve got them barking in my ear every day" (89). The irony of the statement is deepened by our sense of the anonymous identity of those "Armenians"the ones inhabiting the novel’s fictional world as well as the attorney’s office in itas much as of the unnamed "odar." Perhaps it is entirely fitting, then, that Bloodvine has been compared to William Saroyan’s works and been nominated for an award named after him. Saroyan’s legacy, far more than Angel’s spirits, haunts the novel and beckons to the reader, from somewhere between the odar world and the Armenian. Hovig Tchalian holds a PhD in English literature from UCLA. He has edited several journals and also published articles of his own. You can reach him or any of the other contributors to Critics’ Forum at commen’s@criticsforum.org. This and all other articles published in this series are available online at www.criticsforum.org. To sign up for a weekly electronic version of new articles, go to www.criticsforum.org/join. Critics’ Forum is a group created to discuss issues relating to Armenian art and culture in the Diaspora.

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