In our January edition of 15 Bytes we took a look at Lance Larsen, a 2009 Utah Book Award winner. For this week’s Sunday Reading installment, Geoff Wichert reviews another past winner, novelist Christine Allen-Yazzie.
“You have to be careful. This one will write it all down.”
The Arc and the Sediment: A Novel by Christine Allen-Yazzie
©2007 by Utah State University Press, Logan, Utah
reviewed by Geoff Wichert
The question we asked ourselves was simple. What kind of writing wins Utah’s literary awards? In this month’s edition, we took a look at 2009 Utah Book Award for Poetry winner Lance Larsen, whose focus on his family fit comfortably with our expectations, while his use of language surprised and impressed us. Larsen’s page-length, largely free-form verse narratives set up opportunities to distill language into an intense sense of presence, while we easily related to the struggle and resolution he captured in his daily life. One of us read the poems together with his eight-year old daughter, though of course he had to explain some challenging passages.
Lance Larsen’s narrative approach helps make his poetry accessible. Novelist Christine Allen-Yazzie returns the compliment by creating poetic passages in her prose. In 2007 Allen-Yazzie received an honorable mention from the James Jones First Novel Competition for The Arc and the Sediment, which that same year won the Utah Arts Council Original Writing Competition Publishing Prize and the following year the Utah Book Award. But aside from their comparable skills, honors, and overlapping techniques, the two authors begin worlds apart and never explore common ground. Larsen, whose literary persona seems identical to him, dwells inside his subject matter like a house and focuses on his personal reactions, appearing all but indifferent to the alien lives and alternative experiences that lie beyond. Gretta Bitsilly, the protagonist of The Arc and the Sediment, is not only not Christine Allen-Yazzie, but wants desperately to efface herself from her interactions with those she meets on her journey. She seems to belong nowhere but on the road, where her anonymous and quickly stunted encounters with hitchhikers, bartenders, suffocating and abusive parents, children at risk, exploitative fellow travelers, and finally her own in-laws first remind her of a lifetime of failure to connect, then suggest some reasons why. Her most revealing moments might be the ones when she wakes up in her car, unable to identify the clothes she has slept in or remember how she came to be wearing them. Afflicted with a seizure disorder, a drinking problem, and the sort of cellphone breakdowns and internet connectivity challenges that are becoming only too familiar to us all, she spends most of the novel feeling helpless, as a quick round trip from Salt Lake City to Defiance, Arizona, turns into a week-long odyssey that might have overcome Odysseus or daunted Dante.
It seems a safe bet that Gretta Bitsilly is no one’s first choice to share the trip with. Nor should anyone who is perfectly at home in his or her assigned social role bother to embark on the journey. If “wife” or “father” or “journalist” feels to the reader like a completely adequate vessel in which to grow a self, this is not the right book. Not limiting herself to tales of temptation and defeat, Gretta forthrightly admits she is often defeated even before temptation begins. Her complete refusal to make excuses for herself and her failure on seemingly every front is almost as trying as the challenge of following her through the labyrinth of her days and their echoes in her past. Yet as she comes closer to reuniting with her husband—a reunion that finally requires police assistance to bring off—her story becomes like Lance Larsen’s after all. Whether it’s a husband or wife, an eternal principle, or some other deity, living comes down to the choices we make about commitment and fidelity. How those issues come into focus in a disorienting road trip is ultimately no stranger, no less rewarding a story than finding them in the layered meanings of a poet’s songs. And apparently, the kind of books that win Utah literary awards are the kind a reader can’t put down: that keep the pages turning until the story ends in the book and the journey continues in us.