I agreed to review Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, by Caitlin Kiernan, for the Fantasy Literature website. It’s a short story collection published by Subterranean Press, due out the end of July, 2012.
The word “confessions” carries a particular intimation when it is used in a title; it implies that secrets and intimacies are going to be revealed (even if it’s in a fictional setting). It is a specific word. It is a particular word, and it leads to part of the problem I’m having with this anthology. How do you separate the artistic from the personal, when the artist has shared the personal on Wikipedia? Do you even want to separate the two? Or can you?
I’ve read other work by Kiernan and I’ve always been impressed by her stunning prose, even when I thought the story-telling wasn’t the strongest. She has a grasp of imagery and the ability to add one small detail to a sentence that grounds it in reality, even when the story is the complete opposite of realistic. Her ability to manipulate language makes my breath catch.
When I pick up a book of stories and vignettes, with “Confessions” in the title, and it’s stuffed to the gills with torture and mutilation of women, mostly by women, I have to wonder, “Why? What is the writer trying to reveal to me?”
Throughout Confessions of a Five-Chambered Heart, women are hurt and abused. Women torture women. Men torture women. Kiernan seems to make a specialty of sewing lips together; vulval as well as oral. In one story, the female first-person narrator craves the needle and thread. Why?
Many of the short pieces (two pages or less) have no plot and they are simply vignettes (of torture or mutilation). On Kiernan’s Wikipedia page is listed a journal called Sirenia Digest that she contributed to and edited. The writers aimed for a fusion of the erotic and the morbid, trying for a particular emotional tone in the prose, and several of these pieces are from that journal, which gives me some context. But still, why?
In the forward, Kiernan sites the Marquis de Sade as one of her influences. Okay, that explains a lot. And now, here’s a confession of my own. When I was twenty-two, someone gave me de Sade’s La Nouvelle Juliet (it was in English) and I tried to read it. I tried. I started having trouble sleeping. I felt like someone had put up a clear, impermeable membrane between me and the world. The sky looked duller. The air smelled staler. I stopped reading it, and I never attempted it again. It’s safe to say that I don’t like the Marquis de Sade’s material. Many intellectuals, some of them women, say that de Sade’s lengthy paeans to cruelty, torture, murder, death, dismemberment and poisoning were all about freedom. (He wrote some of them from prison, so freedom could have been on his mind.) De Sade is applauded in some circles as a poster child for the Enlightenment, a free-thinker fighting against the evil government, church and society that wouldn’t let him do what he wanted to do. Funny how freedom to do what you want always involves the hurtful things you want to do. Does anyone ever take to the barricades for the right to go swimming or give their lover a massage?
Anyway, he’s one of her influences along with many, many others. In the forward to Five-Chambered Heart, Kiernan talks about her attempts to capture the attraction and the real danger or reaching out to the Other (which might, in fact, be the five-chambered heart reference), and she does succeed in many of these pieces. Not every story involves the carving up of a female body, or even a male body. Even the sadomasochistic pieces are deeply psychological and Kiernan has some interesting ideas about the human psyche.
Kiernan has a long Wikipedia page, and, according to her blog, she is an editor for Wikipedia, so it seems reasonable to assume that she had a hand in crafting her page. She is quite open about the fact that she is transgendered and a lesbian. If I say, “In these works, this educated, adept and thoughtful writer, who knows exactly what she is doing, is (or was) working out some issues with trauma,”I’m sure some people will scream that I’ve got issues with transgendered people. On the other hand, with her choice of included works and her careful use of the word “Confessions,” Kiernan led me, step by step, to that conclusion. These pieces don’t just read like the work of someone trying for an unusual prose tone, or challenging the consensual societal limits. They read like the work of a person processing trauma.
Is this a problem? No. This is part of art’s function. Does it make for uplifting reading? For me, no. Several stories in this collection are excellent. Several work extremely well as metaphors for various things. Ultimately, though, this book was a perplexing downer. I admired much of it. I didn’t enjoy it.