Friday, May 01, 2015

Miranda's Book by Alfred Corn- A Review

An Essay on Alfred Corn's second novel, Miranda's Book.

A Novel about Writing a Novel

Miranda’s BookMiranda’s Book
by Alfred Corn
Eyewear Publishing. 323 pages, $20.

You’ve made a killing. Going with your lover to retrieve a portfolio of art, you somehow manage to bring about the death of someone you dislike, someone the reader will no doubt dislike. What do you do? Call 911, or head out with your hot new lover on the open road? Fortunately for us, Miranda chooses the latter action.
         Alfred Corn’s second novel is an olio: one part On The Road, two parts existential examination of life, with a dash of Iris Murdoch. One character’s choice leads to an inevitable clash and transformation of another. As novels go, Miranda’s Book employs a rather complex form to tell its tale. It is in fact a novel within a novel, but with a twist. 
We learn early on that a book called “Miranda’s Book” is being written by an accomplished African-American writer living in Brooklyn. His niece is in prison. Why she is there and the justification for her fatal actions are the subject matter of the book he is writing, a book to which we as readers are given privileged access. Mark Shreve is the writer and he appears in his own novel as Uncle Matthew. His niece is Marguerite and her fictional name in his novel is Miranda.
         Not only does the novel within a novel provide us with a detailed, exquisite account of Miranda’s journey through three countries and her mental processes and feelings along the way; it also presents the author, her uncle, who has his own feelings and views about what led up to the killing and his niece’s flight after the deed. Consequently, Uncle Mark Shreve is as much on an existential quest as his niece, Marguerite, the Miranda of his novel.
    If all this sounds too convoluted to be readily grasped, it isn’t. The chapters describing the uncle/author’s point of view, misgivings, and thoughts about the ethics and the æsthetics of what he’s doing blend with the primary story, giving it an added dimension. In one of the uncle’s self-analysical chapters, he recalls Gore Vidal: “Gore, for his part, ridiculed me even to my face, saying I was a pathetic closet case who wrote about heterosexuals with no firsthand knowledge of the subject.” Is this true, or do we believe Shreve’s rebuttal? Are we reading about Shreve’s reflections, or author Alfred Corn’s?
         Furthermore, when we read, for instance, that Miranda is on a long flight enjoying a novel by Trollope, we are simultaneously aware that it may be the real-life uncle who has read Trollope, not the real niece, Marguerite, in the fictional form of Miranda. One of the mysteries the reader is left to ponder is the degree to which what happens in the novel within the novel, Miranda’s Book, is true to the niece he is defending. Miranda is always also her uncle, the writer. As he says himself, “I could hardly tell Marguerite’s story without bringing in my own.”
         Add to the mix that Miranda is half Jewish and half African-American, while her uncle is a well-to-do, highly intellectual, gay black writer living in Brooklyn, and you see how rich this novel is in its exploration of culture and love circa 1990. What is it like to be half black, half Jewish, and married to a bore of a WASP? Miranda early on sees the emptiness of her married life. Her husband is self absorbed, possessive, and cheating on her while nonetheless controlling her life. First engaging in her own affair with a bisexual man, Miranda ultimately leaves her vile husband and his mistress for art and Guillermo, a handsome, artistic Latin lover. Having broken from her husband and his ego, Miranda finds her own interest in art and love again. Meanwhile, she attends the opening of the controversial show of Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs in her hometown of Cincinnati. Public discussions about Mapplethorpe and censorship, æsthetic ruminations by both Uncle Matthew and Miranda, and the ensuing trial that acquitted the gallery of obscenity charges all reveal more about Miranda as she embarks on her journey.
         The novel within a novel takes us to Canada, the remote woods of Maine, New York, Ohio, and finally Mexico, where Miranda experiences the Day of the Dead. The reader is lavished with Alfred Corn’s poetic vision of San Miguel de Allende and the enchanted town of Pátzcuaro with its mystical lake high in the Sierras, where the veil between the living and dead is diaphanous. All along the way, Miranda’s character evolves and grows. Her revelations and her epiphanies coincide with the insights of her uncle both in and out of the interior novel. The uncle, living in Brooklyn and writing his novel, becomes so interesting that we begin to hope for a third novel about Mark Shreve.
         In the mind of her gay uncle, a writer and cultivated man, Miranda confronts dilemma after dilemma. She looks at herself critically, realizing at times that she has had a privileged existence, more than enhanced by the generosity and the rescue by her uncle. Have her circumstances corrupted her? Is she the modern version of a liberated woman, or someone who deserves to be in prison? Is her uncle successful in defending her? Has she even committed a crime at all? If you’re looking for a novel with huge, archetypal characters making sweeping philosophical conclusions, as in Dostoevsky, or the paranoid and surreal visions of Kafka (also mentioned as among Miranda’s books), this may not be the novel for you. If you want a thought-provoking book filled with adventure, one that is expressed in poetic, evocative language, including some provocative sex scenes, and if you want a book that contains quandaries concerning life choices, justice, and ethics, not to mention a look at the creative process of writing itself, then by all means visit the pages of Miranda’s Book.
Jack Miller is a teacher and writer based in Atlanta.

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