Norman Lock
Ellipsis Press ($13)

by Monica McFawn

When Guntur, the main character of Norman Lock’s Shadowplay, commits himself to the life of a dalang, a Javanese shadow-puppeteer, the narrator spells out his future: "Guntur would be . . . a shadow—a ghost—a teller of stories about shadows and ghosts to people who will be shadows and ghosts for him always." Guntur, perhaps like all storytellers, is bound to tell his story from behind a screen, separating himself from the world even as he aims to represent it. Just as adalang retells ancient and iconic stories in his puppet-theatre,Shadowplay is itself a fable that stages the storyteller's struggle between imagination and reality, experience and its record.

The basic plot of Shadowplay reworks the story of Orpheus and Eurydice: Guntur falls in love with Candra, a batik-dyer from a neighboring town; Candra dies, and Guntur retrieves her from the underworld with the help of his primary puppet, Arjuna. The plot is hardly straightforward, however, because the narration makes it unclear whether this is a story Guntur is experiencing or simply telling in his role as a dalang. The novel's prose—incantatory and circular—sounds as if it could have issued from Guntur himself, embellishing an invented myth from behind the puppet-screen. The narration is further complicated late in the novel when a first-person perspective breaks in, explaining that he read Guntur's story in an "Utrecht newspaper" and was prompted to relate the story because of a "women I had left long before in Amsterdam, who had died there of fever." Besides the uncertain teller, italicized questions interrupt the action, as if from an audience asking for clarification.

The dense layering of these devices is clearly intended to reflect on the act of storytelling itself, yet Lock's most interesting commentary appears not through these formal inventions but through the development of Guntur's obsession with Candra. When Guntur initially meets her, his interest has nothing to do with her looks, as he only speaks to her from behind a screen: "What Guntur desired was her words." He wants her story, not her body, and forces her to repeat her life history as a fisherman's daughter in exchange for walang—discarded puppets used for batik patterns. Lock seems to be commenting on the distancing effects of life as a storyteller, the tendency to assess the potential "retell" value of an experience even as it is occurring.

Guntur's interaction with Candra involves nothing more than hearing her story, but he is bereft when she dies. Lock offers fresh insight on the peculiar grief of losing someone who exists only as an idea, only in story:

A bereaved husband will press against him his dead wife's dress . . . In the end he will give the dress away or burn it, so that his mind can be relieved of its habit of sorrow. Guntur had nothing to burn, nothing to give away—nothing, therefore, with which to discharge his feeling of desolation.

The danger of stories, Lock implies, is that their very unreality can compound rather than make sense of loss. Storytelling is necessarily reductive, smoothing over inconsistencies and mystery to maintain a clear narrative line. Rather than aiming to know Candra in all her likely complexity, Guntur is more interested in the pared-away essence of her life; the problem is that he is left with nothing real with which to anchor, or even justify, his grief. Mistaking the story for the woman, the shadow for the object from which it is cast, he illustrates the fact that the narratives we use to make sense of the world sometimes do so at the expense of our experience of it.

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Rain Taxi Online Edition, Summer 2010 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2010