Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Basal Ganglia

(This review was originally written for and posted at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography's site. I purchased the book, albeit wildly discounted during a bizarro binge.) 

Basal Ganglia, Matthew Revert
Read: 3 March 2014   
4.75 / 5 stars  

Sometimes, a quick read highlights the enduring poignancy of a book's message; sometimes it's a matter of a novel being meant as a one-sitting escape into a world that goes far beyond the distance between two covers. And sometimes a book is mercifully quick, not because it's a chore to read but because, like pulling off a practically-grafted-to-your-arm Band-aid, it hurts less just to get it over with so the reader and the tortured characters can all move on as painlessly and as quickly as possible.

Such is the case with Matthew Revert's Basal Ganglia, an ostensibly odd novella that is, at its core, a meditation on the fine line that separates the contended familiarity of marital habits from brewing hostility. Its main (and only, really) characters are Rollo and Ingrid, who began as teenage lovers and are now both consumed with and isolated by the underground pillow-and-blanket fort that Rollo had built to mirror the structure of the human brain and has been indefatigably maintaining for years. With no connection to the outside world, all external conflict has been removed; what unites them in purpose has removed any common enemies that would strengthen their roles as teammates, leaving them to foster alternately resentment and indifference between them. Ingrid soon declares that she wants a child but is reluctant to expose another life to their strange, secluded world, asking that Rollo play his part in the creation of a new life by gathering materials intended for repairing the fort so she can use them to knit their baby.

What ensues is a cautionary tale about all-consuming love: Rollo and Ingrid have reduced the entirety of their world to nothing more than the two of them and the fort, losing sight of themselves as one whole comprising two parts that possess histories and individual identities. The arrival of the baby--a thing that Ingrid protects with such a fiercely believable maternal instinct that I'd find myself worrying about the newborn's safety at certain points--brings their long-suppressed issues screaming to the surface, turning their knitted offspring into a nonliving but tangible thing that becomes the embodiment of the couple's living but intangible hostilities. Both Rollo and Ingrid fear the other will inflict some harm on the baby and damn near tear down their decades-old fort in her efforts to keep the baby from him and his need to know that the baby really exists, as the (still totally inanimate) baby quickly supplants the fort as the ultimate manifestation of their union, only to just as swiftly become the physical representation of the psychological war that has finally erupted between the couple.

One of the things that struck me most immediately about this novella is the gender roles that Rollo and Ingrid assume, not just in terms of their level playing field and strength, but also how they each assume traits of the other's gender to their benefit. Allowing the child to be the tipping point for both characters makes for some of the most overtly effective shattering of gender-dictated stereotypes I've seen in a while, which I think can be attributed to three things: Rollo and Ingrid's individual perspectives receiving equal attention; getting to see how the arrival of a child affects the father just as much as the mother on an individual basis as well as within the confines of a relationship that has shifted focus as it has expanded to include a third; and that both characters possess qualities and characteristics that are presumed to exist almost exclusively within the realm of the other's gender (some examples: Rollo has experienced the joy of creation by way of the fort both he and Ingrid tend to with almost parental obsession and Rollo, unlike Ingrid, begins lactating by the end of the book; Ingrid sprouted a beard before the novella began and assumes the masculine role of the protector in terms of their child). Such atypically balanced and implicitly empathetic regard for gender makes the emotional turmoil of wanting, having and raising children--all of which come with the knee-jerk fear of overwhelming responsibility bitterly feuding with the emotional satisfaction of being charged with the care and protection of a totally dependant being, all wrapped up in a life-changing event--rife with the potential to wreak havoc on man and woman alike.

The yarn Revert spins could be just another take on the familiar tale of a relationship on the rocks and that ill-advised, last-ditch efforts to "fix" years of unacknowledged damage with a baby, but its ability to refashion an ordinary situation into something extraordinary with its offbeat elements (a pillow fort and a knitted child, mainly) keeps things refreshingly focused. There is no fear of childhood scars bringing itself to the forefront because the child in question is made of the same materials as the fort--a fort that is its builder's very own return to the womb (if I knew more about psychology, I'd have something clever to say about the yawning chasm between the part of the body the fort actually represents and that upon which its design is based). Rollo has spent so much time and effort making sure his fort keeps the outside out that he has neglected life inside the fort and is in no way emotionally prepared for a child, either the care it needs or the issues it will inevitably drudge up. The fort is rich in symbolic purpose, demonstrating how two people can work toward a common goal in isolation, underscoring the dangers of living for one obsessive purpose and detailing what happens when a life becomes all purpose and no pleasure.

Basal Ganglia is devastating, fascinating, brutally honest and cautiously hopeful. But most of all, it offers insight and imagination in equal measures, offering both a new take on an old story and compelling characters who breathe oceans of sympathetic humanity into what often err on the side of black-and-white arguments.

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