The Compelling Voice of an Unreliable Narrator: Lynne Lurie's "Museum of Stones"
Lynne Lurie’s third novel is actually a lyric novella, that while not inviting the reader to explore anything like an accessible, navigable terrain, at the same time achieves an invitation to an excruciating exploration of the consequences of our collective fracturing of body, mind, culture, and privilege, somehow lived out in minds and bodies of a central narrator, her family and various North and South Americans in a harsh world they move through but cannot navigate. Seemingly in this landscape no one any longer knows how to navigate, only to endure, strangers in a dour and un-earthly land. More than a mere indictment of the well-understood ravages of cultural privilege and the emotional and spiritual emptiness that it has produced, Museum of Stones could nearly serve as the swan song of that indictment.
For this review, it is worthwhile to call out the substantial and pervasive first person singular point of view for what it is: not a study in depressive narcissism but a road map. The opening, external situation (throughout there is very little in the way of setting) is that a mother has given birth prematurely, to an extremely small preemie. Whether or not the child will live, however, is not the tension point of the narrative, for within a few paragraphs she is relating his tendency to collect various articles he calls “matters important,” and in fact, the tale she tells as she and her husband stand before the Lucite box that holds his miniscule body, that “neither of us has room for anymore sadness,” in a traditional narrative would have come way too early and seem maudlin and captious—self-centered.
In this narrative, however, the information is neither superlative nor critical, and it is in this realization that the narrator is both recognized as unreliable and captures the reader’s fascination. From this point on, such statements cascade with the regularity of the kind of ready intimate detail that everyone spends and that most of us squander. The narrator—whom we assume is a White American—is the kind of mother who seems to see herself as pressed into the service of others, and having made that bed, wants to help her son survive, but more than anything seems to want to sleep in the face of every obligations she has taken on. “I would have left,” she says more than once in silent reply to one situation or another. Nothing new to see there, though, and so the reader who recognizes that the easy and recognizable lack of feeling that coats the surface of this story early on is left, commanded, really, to keep digging for what is at the bottom of it.
The lynchpin may or may not be revealed in the title, which refers to a group of stones that for a while the narrator and her son built every morning, and took down every night, as if it were a mobile or travelling exhibit. “He knew where he found each rock and marked the spot on a hand-drawn map…We mounted the sign on a stake and planted it alongside the road so cars passing by could see it.” The son is distressed to find that “grandmother’s favorite” had been left out all night, the favorite of the narrator’s mother who has been presented by turns as compassionate, intrusive, and blatantly self-involved. But her “favorite” is important to the son.
Is the son autistic? It is very hard to tell. He ultimately obtains a dissertation, but his interests are in facts and the collection of evidence—he is the “son” of the hyper-empirical. The father is as typically absent as can be who have children with traumatic births and lingering illness and difficulties—bumbling, emotionally uneducated, probably trying to do the right thing but not trying particularly hard. The narrator’s father is outright vicious, the obvious icon of patriarchy:
As my father walked me down the aisle, I realized he had in a different decade unbuttoned the same dress. I tried to steady myself by digging my fingernails into my palm. The cut I made was long and deep. By the time I noticed it was too late to blot the red away.
The Latin Americans in the story—a good bit of the tale takes place in Peru and elsewhere in South America, and it is not clear if the mother is a doctor, an administrator of a clinic, or really what they are doing there—are hyper-real, as persons from other cultures tend to feel the Other to be, themselves outsiders when all the trappings of familiar culture fall away. In fact, one has the sense that the un-doing or fracturing of this family is in an important way the product of this encounter. But, like every other “tale” told in the novella, none of this seems to be more important than any other. The family relationships with the Latin Americans are important to them, but as with most people in the story, even those whom the narrator and her son have known for years seem to skim along the surface of their familiarity. Also familiar is the sense that another culture is a refuge from the psychological prism of one’s own, but on the other hand, it is never considered of what the refuge of the Other might consist. But again, Lurie here does not take the easy way out, that somehow material benefit or excess empathy is the answer:
Dig deep and there is water. Men wrapped in rags tend hectares of green tendrils in perfectly ordered rows. Then the green abruptly ends and there is sand…I never returned for the tagged trees, the red maple, the peach, and the apple that would have bloomed so beautifully in my backyard.
Finally, I have called this book a lyric novella, primarily based on the continuous structure of isolated paragraphs (broken up from time to time with single-line prose sentences—there is no moment in which the narrative lapses into recognizable poetic form). The structure takes attention and energy to follow, but allows for a remarkable handling of time and true stream of consciousness, attention darting from this issue, to that deeper consideration, to portraits of fear, to recognition of emotional exhaustion. It is a masterful use of this structure, as well as an intelligent balance of depth and movement.
As in a book of poems, there are riches in this novella that cannot be sufficiently counted or satisfyingly explored in a single review. My reading of the novella was difficult because I have come to reject narratives that paint an entire world without joy, but I was compelled by the mastery of Lurie’s prose again and again. And indeed, I was compelled by the book’s end, that although we are “trapped inside our illnesses,” yet Lurie holds out for the face that even under force, remains the storyteller’s own, seen with “no distortions or duplications.”