THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Book Review

A lovely, baffling metamorphosis

By Ted Weesner Jr.
January 22, 2009
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A classic remains a classic because it continues to be of "use" to readers, and surely Ovid's "Metamorphoses" is one of the oldest works of literature that can feel absolutely timely. Working what must have been the fertile fault line between B.C. and A.D., the Latin poet produced work that's still provoking readers 2,000 years later. Artists too - whether composers, movie directors, sculptors, playwrights (including Shakespeare) - continue to pick over his sumptuous 15-book epic for useful ideas and storylines. In her third novel, "The Sky Below," author Stacey D'Erasmo joins the gang.

Clearly, these "inspired by" or "re-imagining" projects are irresistible to working artists, but one question must be asked of the new/old work. Could it live on its own, minus the classical drapery?

In the case of "The Sky Below," one will likely answer with an immediate yes, followed by a fast suspicion that old Ovid may not have been necessary in the first place. Here's the reason. At the center of this novel resides a spectrally lit, oddly motivated albeit unnervingly compelling protagonist who is alive unto himself - beyond and even in spite of the Ovid overlay. Or: Isn't this a character caged by a conceit?

The novel gets underway in Gabriel Collins's early youth and hopscotches floridly up through his middle age. It's hard to take your eyes off this guy. At the same time, one encounters - via first-person narration - a variety of experiences that stem from the character's unusual (and often utterly bewildering) decision-making. These odd swings seem to turn less on his essence - erasing any notion of character as fate - and more on chance. When a surprise is sprung on us, Ovid is invariably invoked, change striking out of nowhere from the hand of an incomprehensible god.

Gabriel's father leaves when he is still a boy, which sends the family south to run a motel in Florida. Despite his increasingly outlaw ways, Gabriel manages to escape for college with a burgeoning hunger for sex (largely gay) and art-making (magpie and Joseph Cornell-style). From there he leaps into a highly varied existence in Manhattan's East Village.

This character is fascinating in his slipperiness. He works as an obituary writer, falls in with an older wealthy man whom he tolerates but does not love, ghost-writes schlocky bestsellers for a wealthy lady on the Upper West Side, steals objects that he amasses in his apartment (along with a lot of money he keeps in the freezer). In the midst of it all, he becomes obsessed with a brownstone in Brooklyn and develops a form of blood cancer. It's not always clear what these actions are pointing to, character-wise. Gabriel remains a magnetic cipher. And through all of this he comes to believe he's turning into a bird. One wonders whether this weighty bird could get off the ground.

D'Erasmo writes a hyperkinetic, highly lyricized prose that's in turn mind-blowing and occasionally exhausting. And yet studded throughout are ringingly memorable lines, ones that make you see, hear, feel. For example: "The morning collapsed in bright pieces around me." The pile-up of remarkable sentences makes for a gorgeous mess to behold.

In the last section of the book, Gabriel - along with the novel's narrative reason - heads south, trying to flee from his mounting health problems. He takes up residence in an ex-convent/off-the-grid hippie commune in Mexico. In the spirit of a persistent Ovid, Gabriel changes size and shape against his will. A hallucinatory-metaphysical birth is in the making. Though it may be unclear why - as it is unclear through so much of this beautiful and confounding novel - all of us have been through something we won't easily forget.

Ted Weesner Jr. is a writer living in Somerville.

THE SKY BELOW By Stacey D'Erasmo

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 271 pp., $24

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