Jul/Aug 2007  •   Reviews & Interviews

The Arc and the Sediment

Review by Kajsa Wiberg

The Arc and the Sediment.
Christine Allen-Yazzie.
Utah State University Press. 2007. 200 pp.
ISBN 9780874216547.

You can smell the dust in Allen-Yazzie's novel, taste the gin Gretta is downing by the bottle, and feel the dryness and desolation of the landscape through which she travels. The author couldn't possibly have chosen a better setting for this tragic story. Just like her heroine, the desert sucks the life out of everything in and around it, yet—also just like her heroine—somewhere deep within its heart lies passion and a drive to keep living, no matter what.

When we first meet Gretta, she is lying out in the sun, looking deep into a bottle of gin and comparing herself to a crevice, or a V. Though she would like to think of the scene as beautiful, Gretta can see only the puffiness of her face, her abundant belly flab, and the holes in her tattered old pajamas. The analogies are integral parts of this story right from the start, because just as Gretta perceives herself as a never-ending list of flaws, she can only see the negative aspects of her life. She is a mother, a wife, and a writer for a magazine; the kind of life most people would put on a pedestal. Yet to her, it's nothing but a never-ending misery of dim anti-feminist articles, in-laws who hate her, and a husband who is almost positively practicing infidelity. With this glass-half-empty attitude, the only thing making Gretta's life bearable is booze.

The plan, as presented on page one, is for Gretta to confront her husband that night; a confrontation that will either bring him home or finally put an end to a marriage Gretta questions whether he—or she, for that matter—ever wanted in the first place. The plan would have been splendid, had it not been for the minor detail that Gretta can't bring herself to face him. Instead, the days go by as she alternates between spending the night in the homes of dysfunctional families, having oral sex with strangers whom she later abandons roadside, informing her boss that she needs to extend her absence because her husband kicked the bucket and—of course—getting wasted. With each passing day, her lies and excuses grow more outrageous as she can't bring herself to mouth the only words that could actually save her: help me.

When she finally reaches Lance's trailer, Gretta is so beyond wasted that we experience the scene in dreamy, abstract snippets where the majority of the details (such as what happened to her truck and how she ended up there in the first place), remain in the dark. In person, her husband Lance is nowhere near as awful as Gretta made him out to be—all in line with the lethal negativity and wallowing self-pity of her intoxicated mind.

The storytelling reads like an early episode of Lost; the setting is promising, the characters complex, and the narrative seesaws in and out of the story. Gretta comes across like a Russian doll where each layer shredded only reveals more secrets and provokes more questions. Christine Allen-Yazzie delivers the answers in fragments; somewhat satisfying, and as addictive as Gretta's gin. Should Gretta have married James instead? What were the exact circumstances surrounding Lance's hasty departure from her life? Did she ever really love Lance? And if so, is it too late to set things straight?

While frustrating (and heartbreaking for those who have experienced life with an alcoholic first hand), dark, and depressing at times, Allen-Yazzie balances her act nicely by providing Gretta with traits that make it near impossible not to love her. Yes, she is a slave to the Tanqueray (although not the Beefeater) and she has visions of how she would like her life to be, but neither the energy nor the inspiration to change for the better. She kind of wishes Lance would come back, yet she plans to go off on him the minute she sees him. Underneath her shallow obsessions, she is equipped with such depth; Kafka would look shallow in comparison.

It's easy to see why a "Mickey Mouse magazine like the Utah Inquirer" doesn't suit Gretta one bit. Gretta is working on a dictionary defining the parameters of substance, space, and time, while her boss wants her to write about gardening. In a state where promoting a non-Mormon woman is as unthinkable as contraceptives, it's no wonder a bisexual, explorative and compulsively drinking feminist has a hard time finding satisfaction—in her private life and at work. Her intellect spans much larger surfaces than the tiny life she has carved out for herself. There's nothing wrong with that life (at least not from the perspective of an outsider), but it fits Gretta like a pair of boots two sizes too small. It hurts, it chafes, and it suffocates her. It takes her spirit away, and leaves her feeling like the only place she can be herself is in the gin-induced fog. Her struggle is as realistic as it is tear-provoking. Overwhelmed and raped by the truth, Gretta buries the reasons—although not the excuses—for her behavior deep within her frightened and deluded soul . . . and in her precious dictionary.

Judging from what Gretta tells us in a number of vivid flashbacks, Lance and his new girlfriend, Angela, are two selfish, obnoxious, and overall unpleasant people. Their actions during the last couple of chapters, however, paint a different picture. Rather than the self-centered coward I expected Lance to be, he is not only charming, but equipped with a heart of gold and a genuine concern for his troubled wife. Yes, he has another woman when Gretta shows up, but he's willing to sacrifice anything to patch their marriage back together. Angela comes across as a bit edgy, but as far from evil as could possibly be. This then is exactly where Christine Allen-Yazzie's greatest strength lies: in the creation of contrasts and alternative realities. In fact, it's so skillfully executed in this novel, it left me wondering who's the protagonist and who's the antagonist. The roles of Gretta and Lance are so tightly intertwined and so complex, the lines between good and bad become increasingly blurry. This just so happens to be exactly the way I like it.


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