Anil Menon takes on our guest author Ekaterina Sedia‘s latest novel, The House of Discarded Dreams.
Review: The House of Discarded Dreams
by Anil Menon
In Ekaterina Sedia’s novel, there is a striking passage where the heroine Vimbai invokes the Rafflesia, an endoparasitic plant with flowers that “looked like slabs of meat and stank of rotting flesh.” Inextricably entwined around the host plant’s life support systems, the parasite is completely embedded inside the host and visible to the outside world only in the form of its grotesque flowers. The House of Discarded Dreams splits our veins to show us the oneiric parasites that suck us dry, prospering as we wither, flowering in our ruin.
We give these dream parasites various names. For Vimbai, a second-generation American whose immigrant parents came from Zimbabwe, the dreams take the shape of guilt. Guilt at not being American enough and guilt at being too American. Like many children of the Diasporas—Asian, African, Hispanic, and European— she’s caught in-between, an African soul trapped in a new world body. Her mother, an Africana scholar, is harsh, loving, driven, irascible and hyper-sensitive to history. Her father is weak and ineffectual. Unable to take the daily blowouts any more, Vimbai moves out into a rental. Her two roomates are decidely odd. Felix, for example, has a black hole that doubles as hair (perhaps a play on Cosmology’s no-hair theorem for black holes). Her other roomate Maya has her familiars, critters that are a cross between foxes and squirrels. The house begins to float away. A Psychic Energy Baby downloads itself from the telephone wires.
Though the exuberant fantasizing is fun, it sometimes leaves the novel with insufficient constraints. It’s a problem intrinsic to the fantasy genre. If fantasy adheres to rules and regulations, then it’s just an alternate Earth with an alternate physics, chemistry and biology. But remove the rules and regulations,and there’s always the risk of adhockery. It’s a tough tightrope to walk, and Sedia’s novel occasionally teeters. For example, there’s a scene where Vimbai is being drowned in a lake by the catfish (Chapter14). Along comes the Psychic Baby who saves her by sucking the lake dry. It isn’t that this sort of thing is unusual in fantastic literature. Indeed, there’s a Hindu myth involving the sage Agasthya that’s quite similar. Nor does it have to do with the specific solution: the story’s context makes it clear why the solution requires the Psychic Baby to drink the water and not, say, make ice from it. The problem really has to do with the long sequence of such events. Myths and fairy tales are short. But at novel length, the techniques of symbolic fantasy can be wearisome.
To be fair, Sedia is very careful with her images. The basic set of events is quite sparse and mostly play with water, light, drinking, drowning, body traumas and the insides/outsides of things. And she never wavers from her central question: what does one do if one’s dreams are not one’s own, but parasitic dreams, life-sucking dreams embedded by one’s heritage, parents, and the Other. In Vimbai’s case, these parasitic dreams are primarily due to her mother and to a lesser extent from the American society around her.
Vimbai’s mother is a fascinating character. In the grand narrative of the Hardworking Immigrant Citizen, there are two things of special interest. As the scholar Bonnie Honig pointed out, the immigrant is the only citizen to “explicitly consent to the regime.” Regular citizens may have the luxuries of resistance and dissent. The Immigrant, however, cannot complain about the status quo because they came voluntarily. The second (related) point of interest is that the Immigrant’s dream is assumed to correspond with the State’s interests. But in Sedia’s novel, Vimbai’s mother is an immigrant who neither consents to the regime nor embraces the standard immigrant dream. She’s inconvenient, exasperating and not very grateful. She is also fully three-dimensional. For me, Vimbai’s mother made the story. Iwould have liked to have seen a lot more of this fascinating woman. Perhaps this book should have been her story and not Vimbai’s.
Perhaps it is. When we follow Vimbai in her attempts to free herself, to make sense of her existence in what shouldn’t be– for her– the New World, what we are also following is a mother who seeks rest. In this journey, Vimbai is assisted and harassed by a variety of frenemies—an old grandmother, totem animals, ghosts of universes past, and the presence of good and evil everywhere. But most of all, it’s her mother who guides her to the resolution.
The writing is occasionally a little rough, especially at the beginning, where there’s a marked lack of precision and cohesiveness. The first chapter could have used a more careful editorial scan. For example, this sentence with its unclear pronouns:
“She wished she would pay as half as much mind to Vimbai’s problems and worries as she did to the white men trying to hijack her department.” (p. 9)
But these problems mostly disappear in the later chapters, and the narration is more cohesive and to the point.
Perhaps the point is a moral one. I disagreed with Sedia’s thesis—or rather, the implied author’s thesis– that the “good” includes a non-judgmental respect for the past and its beliefs. In the novel, things get their aura from their connection with the past, from their humility and from knowing their place.The new, the modern, the forgetful and the aggressive are the problem, not the solution. Thus Vimbai’s beloved animal is the tortoise because it does not “chase after things” and is “satisfied with what it has”and is “never aggressive and yet gets its way.” (p. 292) This immediately disqualified the tortoise as my favorite animal, but then again, an author is not obliged to respect the reader’s preferences.
We could imagine a different Vimbai. A Vimbai who takes a bulldozer to that termite-ridden ancestral house. One who couldn’t care less about colonization, old myths or her parents’ inexhaustible regrets. One whose beloved animal is herself. A Vimbai who might one day lead a nation much like herself: noisy, brilliant, future-oriented, pulsing with the blood of immigrants. On the other hand, this is no longer a fantasy.
The House of Discarded Dreams is a courageous novel. It avoids easy cliches, it’s driven by powerful conflicts and its solutions are not necessarily pleasing. It’s condescending to give the novel extra credit because Ekaterina Sedia, an author of Russian origins living in the US, chose the African disapora as her setting. But I’m very glad she did.