Blue Field by Elise Levine (Biblioasis, July 2017) Reviewed by Hannah LeClair

Blue Field
by Elise Levine
(Biblioasis, July 2017)

Reviewed by Hannah LeClair

As a writer, Elise Levine has an affinity for the tightly compressed, and so her novel Blue Field revolves around the exploration of torturously claustrophobic underwater spaces through the risky, physically and mentally challenging practice of “crunch diving.” In the novel, Levine sends her protagonist, Marilyn, into the depths of cenotes, where submarine rivers stream from limestone caverns, and the flooded galleys of shipwrecks. Levine describes these dives in writing that is accordingly elegant and compact. Reading the novel is a sensation akin to drifting weightlessly beneath the surface of the text—”the underside of waves a shimmering twill,” in Levine’s words. In her hands, this description becomes an apt metaphor for her prose: dazzling, textured, tightly woven. Such elegance is the result of careful and unremitting practice. Levine, a transplant to Baltimore from her native Toronto, is an exacting writer whose two other books are a testament to her drive for precision: a 2003 novel entitled Requests and Dedications, and the acclaimed 1995 collection, Driving Men Mad, in which her short stories unfolded across sometimes as few as three or four pages in dense, highly controlled language.

In Driving Men Mad, Levine, once a novice diver herself, explores the pastime in the story “In Marble”—a clear precursor to Blue Field. The setting is Lake Mazinaw, in the highlands of eastern Ontario. A Google search for Lake Mazinaw brings up autofill suggestions like “Lake Mazinaw map,” “Lake Mazinaw pictographs,” “Lake Mazinaw monster,” and “Lake Mazinaw drowning,” collectively hinting at the danger and boreal mysteriousness of deep-water lake diving. Levine’s unnamed narrator, diving solo and trussed in gear inherited from a dead man, descends and begins to twist herself into the passages of the marble cave:

Face, ass, breasts, every part of me equalling this: stuck in rock. Tangling and untangling in the line. Feeling my way out blind as Tiresias. Knowing for the first time how easily I could slip into my skin. Become, briefly, a swimming dead thing. Knowing I could never be more alive than this.

The addictive quality of such risky diving, tersely underscored by Levine’s narrator, lies in the thrill of knowing oneself, beneath all that heavy and expensive gear, to be just a body freed of emotional weight, turning deeper and deeper inward, and confronting “the terrible price of all things.”

That “terrible price” suggests something of what Marilyn, Levine’s protagonist in Blue Field, must confront—the terrible price of loss, and the equally terrible price of survival. Marilyn takes up crunch diving after losing her parents in quick succession—her mother to cancer, her father to a subway bombing. Soon, she marries her diving instructor, Rand. For Marilyn, diving takes on an almost religious significance, allowing her to slip from a grief-stricken present into a submarine dream-time where she can drift weightlessly in a “freeing aphasia.” But when Marilyn’s best friend Jane, partnered by Rand, dies in a diving accident, Marilyn’s sense of self is shattered and her marriage devolves into a hellish gyre of guilt, reproach, and mutual distrust. In Blue Field, Levine makes Marilyn’s submarine world of caves and shipwrecks a synecdoche the terrain of grief.

Levine’s concerns in “In Marble” and Blue Field almost inevitably bring to mind the words of Adrienne Rich’s iconic poem, “Diving into the Wreck.” Rich’s poem resonates not only with Blue Field’s domestic post-mortem but also with Levine’s attention to language. Although the terse “In Marble” largely eschews the lyricism that is the most compelling feature of her novel, in Blue Field, narrative’s surface tension is stretched across each sentence. In an interview with the magazine of Johns Hopkins, where she directs the university’s Advanced Academic Writing Program, Levine acknowledges a debt to Rich, whose work showed her “how elastic language and character and story could be.” Levine’s inheritance from Rich includes Blue Field‘s feminist angle: at its core is Marilyn, a woman struggling understand herself in the wake of her losses, who must confront the devastating possibility that she has been lying to herself. Rich writes, in “Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying”—an essay in which she finds that the subject of lying inexorably returns her to the notion of truth—that, “The liar is afraid. [. . .] She is afraid that her own truths are not good enough.” When we are compelled to look at closely at the truth, Rich writes, instead of discovering an ultimate simplicity or unity, “we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern, the knots on the underside of the carpet.” Rich’s vision of the truth as a texture—knotted, complicated—might well return us once again to Levine’s perception of the multifarious texture of light playing beneath the water’s surface: “a shimmering twill.”

In “Diving into the Wreck,” Rich uses language to reach for a truth beyond words: “The thing I came for: / the wreck and not the story of the wreck / the thing itself and not the myth.” Levine’s prose in her novel is so compact, and her use of language so exacting that her words and phrases seem to be similarly aspiring towards a thing-like density—the quality of a substance like air or water, perhaps, or the mixture of gases divers breathe deep underwater. The particular quality or consistency of Levine’s style has been characterized by other reviewers as “immersive” and precipitous”; “dense” and “haunting.” This is partly an effect of the contrasts of register that abound in Blue Field. In this novel, the poetics of Levine’s prose turn on its oscillation between lush descriptive excesses, and the terse precision demanded by both the highly specialized technical vocabulary of diving and the exigencies that powerful emotions—pain, grief—place on ordinary speech. “Diving into the Wreck” is a poem in which Rich can push hard at language’s limits with her stringent refusals of narrative, but the confessional mode—like the novel—is never able to militate completely against “the myth.” Levine knows this, and writes as one who is aware of the high stakes of her prose: its challenge is to twist itself ever more deeply into the narrow interstices between language, myth, and “the thing itself.”

 

Levine’s feminism, her compressed storytelling and her tight focus on a female protagonist may invite comparisons to the writing of Elena Ferrante—particularly her disturbing novella, The Days of Abandonment. Like Ferrante’s Olga, Levine’s Marilyn is a character whose emotional experience is portrayed as visceral and always embodied: “Anger and pain jaundiced every chamber of her heart,” Levine writes. Throughout the novel, she tracks Marilyn’s interiority in close, third-person narration, and she equips Marilyn, a medical illustrator, with a particularly keen insight into the human body’s integuments, where braided muscle yokes breath and feeling. Levine’s phenomenological precision is often uncannily lovely, and even the novel’s title, which refers to the “blue field ectopic phenomenon”—the medical term for the bright, gnat-like dots that dance across the visual field when one looks up at a cloudless sky—is suggestive of her preoccupation with capturing what it’s like to exist within a female body.

Like Ferrante, Levine is also interested in plumbing the depths of female friendship against the backdrop of heterosexual intimacy. Jane is Marilyn’s second self. “If they were actual twins,” Levine writes, “Jane would have been the bolder first-born.” In Marilyn’s mind, Jane belongs to “cicada-time, girl-time of cigarettes filched from parents . . . , of hash brownies and baked-baby brownies and other sundry legends.” As adults, their friendship has become more complicated: we learn that they’ve shared a boyfriend in the past, that Jane’s had an unhappy pregnancy, and that they’ve been drifting out of touch. Jane remains a perpetual cipher. Throughout the novel, she becomes a kind of lightning rod for all Marilyn’s worst insecurities about herself: her self-loathing, her uncertainty, and her guilt about the potential costliness of the mistakes she makes while diving. But it is cool-headed, confident Jane, not Marilyn, who runs out of air in an underwater cave. The vividness of Jane and Marilyn’s twin-ship comes to the fore only in Jane’s absence, when Marilyn—for whom there has always been a Jane—is forced to confront her husband Rand’s watchwords: “There is no someone else.”

Despite the centrality of the women’s friendship, Levine’s narrative ultimately gives pride of place to Marilyn’s marriage. Her husband, Rand, is a skilled negotiator of the high-stakes of crunch diving. From the first, though shaken by his individualistic assertions, Marilyn is piqued and determined to hold her own as a woman in the swaggering, macho world of diving. “The buddy system’s just an excuse for being poorly trained,” Rand says, holding court over dinner. His words leave Marilyn feeling “blurry and fierce and fucked with,” foreshadowing the threat of betrayal lurking in their relationship. In Rand’s worldview, only expertise can really command respect, and it trumps kindness, patience, and partnership—diving’s life-or-death stakes are just too high, and it’s every man for himself. Indeed, surfacing from a dive, Rand berates Marilyn for her novice screw-ups with explosive anger and disdain. “What are you,” he demands, “a tourist?” Marilyn, no stranger to bereavement, finds herself startled by the savagery of her feelings toward Rand she considers what she’s lost—not her own life, but the lives of those she’s loved: “She’d already lost and lost. What was Rand’s grief—what were his griefs—by comparison?” After Jane’s accident, Marilyn and Rand confront each other with the question, “Do you wish it had been me?” After a beat, Rand replies, “Marilyn, we’re all we have.” If Blue Field asks how we might go on living, in the knowledge that “there is no someone else,” perhaps what Levine really wants to find out is whether Rand’s “we’re all we have” could be the tender obverse of “there is no someone else”—or whether it’s merely a comforting platitude.

Levine has been previously published by the venerable Toronto House McClelland & Stewart. With Blue Field released earlier this year by the independent, Windsor, Ontario-based Biblioasis, Levine establishes herself within a Canadian literary landscape that may be unfamiliar to most American readers. It’s a landscape that suggests additional, more regionally-specific interlocutors than Rich or Ferrante for the themes animating Blue Field—survival in the face of extreme physical risk; survival in the face of unimaginable loss. That theme of survival calls to mind Survival, Margaret Atwood’s classic 1972 thematic survey of Canadian literature. Atwood, borrowing the notion of the garrison mentality from Northrop Frye, proposes “survival, la survivance” as the central symbol for Canadian literature. The notion of survival—on the frontier, in the depths, after the wreck—is, of course, also part and parcel with an Anglo- and Franco-Canadian heritage of settler colonialism, but for Atwood, it encompasses a particularly Canadian orientation toward nature and human institutions alike: her study describes survival in terms of “bare survival in the face of hostile elements,” “the survival of a crisis or disaster,” and “cultural survival,” the survival of “vestiges of a vanished order.” Atwood sees the Canada in which this struggle for survival takes place is as “the kind of space in which we find ourselves lost”—in other words, a territory for which a Canadian national literature could be a map.

Atwood—despite her towering stature—is one of many internationally recognized Canadian women writers, including Alice Munro and Carol Shields, who rose to prominence during the “Canlit Boom” of the ’70s and ’80s, at the crossroads of post-war Canadian nationalism and second-wave feminism. A generation later, Levine is writing among a greater diversity of voices at a moment when the Canadian publishing world is becoming more consolidated: In 2015, McClellan & Stewart was absorbed by Penguin Random House Canada, leaving the field open for the small but increasingly significant contributions of independent presses like Biblioasis, House of Anansi, and The Porcupine Quill Press in bringing to light highly-regarded literary fiction from writers new and established, Indigenous, Francophone, and Anglophone, alike.

Although it is easy to see how Marilyn’s struggle for survival fits into Atwood’s symbolic matrix, it may be more difficult to see what makes Blue Field a truly Canadian novel. In fact, it would be simpler to point out the ways Levine seems to have chosen to de-emphasize its Canadian-ness. While Blue Field‘s other territories—the submarine, the embodied self—take on a stunning specificity, their exactness is never extended to the novel’s external setting. The globalized northern city Marilyn hails from is a kind of no-place, anonymous and anonymizing. If that city is meant to be Ottawa or Toronto, it doesn’t seem to be the Ottawa or Toronto of the present moment. Levine replaces all the subtle details we might use to orient ourselves with others that suggest a dystopian near-future—echoing the settings of some of Atwood’s novels—in which militarized checkpoints have proliferated through the countryside, where digiboards broadcast advertisements in Franglish, Korean, and Farsi, and where urban renewal is the province of an administration whose Works!Workers build “BestBet towers . . . ringed with SureBets and SafeBets.”

Atwood’s survey is just one way to map out the territory in which a writer of Levine’s generation came of age. For all the haziness of its spatial and temporal details, and for all the foregoundedness of its language, Blue Field nevertheless contains subtle but persistent autobiographical suggestions. In an autobiographical essay for PANK, “Axioms of Euclid Avenue: herself, by herself,” Levine recalls the messy amateurism of her young adulthood: “In these days, I keep a journal: over and over I write How to Live a Life: a life: not My Life.” Levine’s idiosyncratic use of punctuation lends significance to each pause in that phrase, making a pattern of perforations that registers the halting breathiness of hesitant speech. Levine sketches some of the details of her life in Toronto as a student, suggesting her contentious relationship with her mother, what she was reading at the time, who she was sleeping with. We learn that like Marilyn, Levine is the daughter of Jewish-Canadian parents. Like Marilyn’s mother, Levine’s died of cancer. A particularly searing detail is carried over from real life into Blue Field: in death, the mother’s mouth is stitched shut to prevent her body from soiling its shroud.

In this context, it’s remarkable that Blue Field, which keeps such a tight focus on Marilyn, largely escapes using autobiography as a crutch, even as it presents a persistent flatness in Levine’s other characters: Jane, Rand, Rand’s diving buddies. Perhaps this is because the novel is so buried in Marilyn’s perception—all these figures really exist only in her head. Levine offers up a vision of the lives of others which is profoundly attenuated—almost estranged. If Blue Field flirts with the limitations of a psychological novel, it does so through just one character’s psychology: Marilyn’s. Levine always keeps her reader’s attention closely focused on her protagonist, and sends Marilyn herself into unknown depths below the surface of the water. Picture her in that obscurity, her beam of light stroking “the flank / of something more permanent / than fish or weed,” as the lamp of Rich’s diver does in “Diving Into the Wreck.” By keeping her focus trained on a blank spot—the unreadability of the motivations of even those we love and whom think we know most intimately—Levine preserves at every turn the sensation of encountering those other lives, at once simple and unfathomable.

 

Hannah LeClair is a writer and a recent transplant from New York to Vermont.