Carole Maso - Line by line I have tried to get closer to an erotic language, and enter a sexual reverie on the level of language

Carole Maso, AVA (Dalkey Archive Press, 1995)

"Ava Klein, thirty-nine, lover of life, world traveler, professor of comparative literature, is dying. From her hospital bed on this, her last day on earth, she makes one final ecstatic voyage. People, places, offhand memories, and imaginary things drift in and out of Ava's consciousness and weave their way through the narrative. The voices of her three former husbands emerge: Francesco, a filmmaker from Rome; Anatole, lost in the air over France; Carlos, a teenager from Granada. The ways people she loved expressed themselves in letters or at the beach or at the moment of desire return to her. There is Danilo, her current lover, a Czech novelist, and others, lovers of one night, as she sings the endless, joyous, erotic song cycles of her life, because "Dusk and the moment right before shapes are taken back is erotic. And the dark."
The voices of her literary loves as well are woven into the narrative: Woolf, Eliot, Nabokov, Beckett, Sarraute, Lorca, Frisch, among others. These writers comment on and help guide us through the text. We hear the voices of her parents, who survived the Treblinka death camp, and of her Aunt Sophie, who did not. War permeates the text, for on Ava Klein's last day Iraq has invaded Kuwait. And above all we hear Ava's voice. Hers is the voice of pleasure, of astonishment, the voice of regret, the voice of gratitude as she moves closer and closer to the "music that is silence."
AVA is an attempt, in the words of French feminist philosopher Helene Cixous, "to come up with a language that heals as much as it separates." The fragments of the novel are combined to make a new kind of wholeness, allowing environments, states of mind, and rhythms not ordinarily associated with fiction to emerge. AVA's theme is the poignancy of mortality, the extraordinary desire to live, the inevitability of death—the things never done, never understood, the things never said, or said right, or said enough. Ava yearns and the reader yearns with her, struggling to hold on to all that slips away."

"Passionate and promiscuous'' is how the author characterizes the reading of Ava Klein, the dying protagonist of the novel. This same phrase could be used to describe Ava in her love and life as well. This richly textured, experimental piece of fiction presents to the reader the sights and sounds of a life lived to the fullest as the memories flood the consciousness of Ava on her last day on earth. Husbands and lovers, places and times both distant and near, family and relatives, war and peace, songs and nature, reading and intellect all weave together to form a tapestry of life and love. Continuing the emotional drive and experimental style of her two previous novels, Maso has written another spellbinder in this current novel. Recommended for serious fiction collections." - Cherry W. Li

"AVA, Carole Maso's third novel, is that rare event, a formal literary experiment that is also compelling as a work of fiction. Maso is a writer of such power and originality that the reader is carried with her far beyond the usual limits of the novel. . . . Maso's voice is all her own: simultaneously cerebral and sensual, violently romantic and insistently woman-centered." - San Francisco Chronicle

"What [Virginia Woolf] did for the prose rhythm of the paragraph, Maso has done for the sentence... [AVA] is to be read slowly, with great pleasure." - Chicago Tribune

"Poetic, rapturous... Like a piece of music, AVA uses repetition and thematic layering to create a shimmering, impressionistic portrait that eschews linear narrative in favor of the sensations aroused by resonant imagery." - New York Times Book Review

"AVA is unique in its blend of prose, poetry, critical theory, and narrative. Maso has created a collage that further blurs the distinction between fiction and poetry and between the modern and the postmodern. Like Pound, she sets ideas and images against one another without drawing narrative connections, encouraging the reader to act as equal participant in constructing images, characters, scenes from Ava's life, and theory from music, literature, and the visual arts." - American Book Review

"What is remarkable, unlikely, and therefore utopic about Ava is the extent to which war, urban violence, disease (especially AIDS), and consumerism have failed to dull her own ability to 'throb.'... Ava is a dream of undamage and therefore an image of resistance to the flattening of experience by 'administered life.' ... We are provided... with the seductive whispering of Ava's voice as she caresses for the last time both memory and the moment." - Exquisite Corpse

"In An Atlas of the Difficult World, Adrienne Rich writes:
I promised to show you a map you say but this is a mural then yes let it be these are small distinctions where do we see it from is the question.
If we concur with Richard Rorty that as social beings we construct our realities, then "where ... we see it from" relates inextricably to the question of who we are. When the foundations of legitimizing accounts began to crumble, when, as Susan Bordo suggests, "accounts could no longer claim to descend from the heavens of pure rationality or to reflect the inevitable and progressive logic of intellectual or scientific discovery," then "the imperial categories that had provided justification for those accounts--Reason, Truth, Human Nature, History, Tradition--become displaced by the (historical/social) questions: Whose truth? Whose nature? Whose version of reason? Whose history? Whose tradition?". Denial of either the anteriority of truth or of the Cartesian postulating subject requires a dialogic stance from which one enters the dialogue committed to acts of agency, points of affiliation, and the stakes of the commitment. Those places of entrance and involvement continually construct an ongoing and shifting subject position in service neither to closed information systems--those political and aesthetic as well as topographical maps--nor to a self-enclosed identity.
Throughout AVA, Carole Maso's third novel, Ava's ruminations on literature suggest that dialogism. applies even to how we receive a literary text: "The poem demands the demise of the poet who writes it and the birth of the poet who reads it". Textual parameters, in turn, extend to broader ideological concerns: "Each page is completely entitled to be the first page" in "literary texts that tolerate all kinds of freedom ... which are not ... texts of territory with neat borders". AVA is thus both text and metatext, a narrator's story and the story of a narration committed to interactive multiplicity. The protagonist, like the text of AVA, opts for resisting closure; indeed, AVA is a moving symphonic rendering of how one life accumulates memory and desire and that life's narrative equivalent, a narrative that, among other literary transgressions, undercuts chronological sequence ("My students and I celebrating the death of plot", Ava says at one point). Maso's textual view of reality--as inevitably shaped by the stories we choose to tell and the stories that we are told--is structured by her determination "to reshape the world according to the dictates of desire" in an employment of the sexuated female body that is erotically attentive to the material world; matter matters to Maso. On a broader level, her call for an open-endedness to the nature of inquiry and for an ongoing inquiry into and denaturalization of the subject interrogates strategies of closure and their usual concomitant gestures of isolationism and desires for power.
Self-enclosed identity is incommensurate to the text of AVA/Ava; thereby Maso imagistically and metaphorically inscribes an alternative to political and aesthetic closed information systems--her ongoing inquiring and denaturalized subject crucially redressing the inevitable and necessary omissions of such systems. On a literal and symbolic level AVA is very much a novel about the body of its eponymous central character. During the breakdown of her physical body, Ava's celebrated "interior multiplicity" - Maso's metonym for a perspectival aesthetic--is traversed by a medical profession that perceives the human body as self-contained and whose articulations of and practices upon the body are synecdoches of the discourses and power operations in the larger cultural context. Maso, on the other hand, is interested in theories of identity based upon sexual object choice, upon the gendered body and its lability. Such investment resists reactionary sexual prohibitions fostered by anxiety over contamination by a sexual "other," as seen, for instance, in the AIDS hysteria." - Victoria Frenkel Harris

Carole Maso, The Room Lit by Roses (Counterpoint, 2000)

"A poetic memoir of the writer's pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Rose—a magical journal of joy, pain, hope, and parenthood."

"She renders the wonder and agony of childbirth and the glimpse of eternity in every newborn in searing, often sublime prose." - San Francisco Chronicle

"Amazingly right on, Maso's stream-of-consciousness musings about brand-new motherhood—especially the tumult of emotions that follow a birth—blew this brand-new mother away." - Utne Reader

"As Carole Maso writes in The Room Lit by Roses, pregnancy is "most people's only contact with the sublime." A novelist whose oeuvre (The Art Lover, Defiance) brims with drama and epiphany, Maso gives us a beautiful and surprising guided tour of creation.
Maso dandles language on her lap: amniotic means lamb in Latin, she tells us, and "placenta in Latin means cake." Explicit descriptions of the birth process tend to freak out even the most thick-skinned of characters—just try mentioning mucous plug, amniotic fluid, or leaky breasts in a crowded room—but Maso perceives pregnancy as anything but icky. Turning biology and chemistry into poetry, she celebrates every microscopic development ("Stretched out she might fit on a thumbnail now. I like to think of her stretched out and floating in there on a little raft") and begins to grow emotionally attached:
The cells multiply, the code is passed, and she is made. When the four-day-old cell cluster arrives in the womb, it is made up of three dozen cells. Closely packed together they are known asmorula—from the Latin for mulberry. My beautiful mulberry girl.
A woman over 40, a writer who has always pushed ideas of motherhood aside in favor of her work, a lesbian whose partner of 20 years has prayed for a baby, Maso voraciously watches over this pregnancy. She refuses to take the "miracle of conception" as a truism, stripping away the cliché until only wonder remains. "And so it is possible to say," she writes on Day 33, "when asked what have you been doing—made two human feet today." - Joy Press

"In lush, elliptical language, Maso (The Art Lover, etc.) charts her first experience with pregnancy and new motherhood in a journal that reads like prose poetry, couching the mysterious experience in surprising forms, syntaxes and imagery. She records the unexpected sense of well-being and faith that accompany her pregnancy: "I've got to say I'm really quite pleased with myself. I am no longer someone I entirely recognize. A kind of wayward haloDleast likely to become an angel or a chaliceDand yet.... To be myself and yet to be so much greater than myself." She also chronicles the fatigue: "Cannot even imagine getting up. How to get to school?... Everything small as if seen from a great distance. The fierce attachments to this world begin to loosen." Maso also explores how, by age 42, she had accepted that she wouldn't have a child, until she and Helen, her partner of 20 years, traveled to Italy and prayed for a baby in a series of chapels and cathedrals. After nights of planned passion with men (alluded to coyly, without specifics), Maso gets her wish. Her father wonders how they all will manageDthe subtext is, "What will people think?" At Brown University, where she teaches creative writing, students notice a radical change in her. Helen, who wanted the child most of all, remains stoic and supportive throughout Maso's prenatal and postpartum vagaries, even though Maso at times leaves her out of the loop. Though Maso's wide-eyed descriptions of the miracles of pregnancy can seem self-indulgent, her dreamlike treatment of pregnancy, birth, mothering and writing should enchant mothers, mothers-to-be and writers with a poetic bent." - Publishers Weekly
"Maso's experiences during the pregnancy and birth of her daughter, Rose, are the focus of this unique book--a combination of prose and poetry written in journal form. Maso's writing style is not for everyone; she's exhibited her experimental style in novels like Aureole (LJ 11/1/96) and a recent collection of essays, Break Every Word (LJ 5/1/00). However, she isn't aiming for a mass audience. Using her own anxieties, anticipation, and love, she has written an important examination of one of the most important passages of a woman's life. This book is highly recommended for public and academic libraries, especially those with women's studies materials." - Mee-Len Hom

"As the subtitle states, this is a "A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth." The author being Carole Maso, however, we know that we are not in for the usual maternal mundanity found in women’s magazines and flogged by publishers. We know that it will be intelligent and without cliché; that it will be strong, uncompromising and original - and so it is. For starters, Carole Maso is a lesbian and she was 42 years old when she conceived her child - hardly a saleable formula for the proverbial mothers-in-waiting market. Maso and her partner Helen, companion of the past twenty-some years, had "prayed over relics of every saint in Tuscany and Umbria for a child," finally ending with prayers to St. Clare in Assisi, who apparently did the trick. The miraculous conception, we learn, took place soon thereafter on an airplane with a "mysterious l’etanger from a far off land, who uncannily had also existed in my pages for many years . . . .
We came together without will almost, caught in motion, without choice -- and this pull, unlike anything I had felt before, this strangeness might have been called in another time destiny, fate. The child just outside us, asking for the mere chance to live. Mere, indeed. Did we dare turn away from her? Did we dare ignore her pleas? In that night of ever expanding circles, heavenly bodies. The stars aligned. A primal ancient motion -- the violence of creation, and then rest."
If it sounds a touch new age, it is, here and there - especially passages taken out of context -- but that "double jeopardy" of "maternal" and "new age" isn’t, fear not, the stuff of this startling, unique journal. One is left in genuine thrall of Maso’s homage to the female body’s creative powers and to Maso herself, who was determined to have a baby on her own terms:
Why shouldn’t the old models, which are working with less and less success be challenged -- the world re-imagined. Heterosexual privilege and power -- and all its attendant rigmarole. Such a system if it were to be taken seriously would have precluded me from having a child. Am I supposed to be grateful to it, acquiescent? Luckily I have never taken it the least bit seriously.
This is classic Maso, who has been accused of writing to agenda, but can in her journal acceptably cut loose and does so:
This child is freedom even now. Detached from its cumbersome accoutrements: husband, sibling, mini-van. Its blandness, its arrogant directives. All the smug heterosexual clubbiness -- its pleased as punch self-congratulation. This child, a child created outside the usual constraints and enclosures. Without the usual prescriptions, hierarchies, sentences, leveled on her head.
I pray, should she come to be, that she will not hate me for it.
It’s a refreshing look at the whole business of childbearing/childrearing, revealing much about society’s preconceived ideas and expectations. It is interesting to note, for example, how people react to the pregnancy: "Mainstream heterosexual breeding sorts try to invite me into their club now. I don’t think so." And elsewhere: "I get many Normal Person Credits for being pregnant, for having a baby. For joining the human race./For forging the husband, for writing all night, for living in my own private Idaho, and for being in general, a basket case, I get points taken away." And from her own circle of friends: "It is a little disconcerting to have those friends who did not have children -- those who made that decision, those who had counted me among them, one of the childless -- to turn away now, if only slightly." She can come down hard, too: "People who have vaguely despised me for having something they did not have: love, talent, confidence. Now their rage, undisguised. Who do you think you are?" Apparently there was more to contend with within her own circle than without, the hetero world being there to embrace her - and easier to ignore.
Sexual politics naturally enters in, appearing in revealing, heartfelt entries, but whatever the topic, this is above all a journal of lush and lyric beauty, much of it reveling in the miracle of the female body and its astounding powers of transformation. Maso speaks of her "Buddha spirit" during pregnancy, and the "glow" she experiences comes shining through on the page. Indeed, she sings the body electric...
. . . .
We are two hearts, four arms, four legs, two brains, four eyes,
in one body. It’s the oddest thing . . . . As if I were not strange
enough already - now, this eight-chambered heart.
. . . .
The baby begins her graceful descent, undeniably.
Mozart’s floating line of sixteenth notes.
. . . .
No, there are no somersaults now. She’s outgrowing her
house of blood and light.
With moments of pure poetry:
The bones in the pubis opening like a butterfly.
The bones of the hips unhinging.
The ribs floating open like water.
All this to allow the child through
On the page it looks similar to Maso’s novel Ava: there are many short entries of a line or two, with wide spacing between entries to set them off, each little gem enclosed in its own sphere.
As befits a journal -- and in this sense it is fairly traditional -- the more-or-less linear progression of the pregnancy is interspersed with asides, quotes, diatribes (against big-house commercial publishers, for example, as well as the hetero club), flashes to the past (to a time as a young girl when she feared pregnancy and "bargained shamelessly" to please let her period begin), meditations on her mother (who had five children) and Maso’s early desire not to have children, which wavered over the years; musings on her own writing, including the act of journal writing ("Who do I concoct in these pages as the Protagonist?"); her preoccupation with finishing a work on Frida Kahlo and her resistance to reading the proofs of Defiance, her latest novel - one filled with so much rage that it seems "poisonous" to her during pregnancy. Of special note is the Aids death of a close friend, who died in St. Vincent’s Hospital where Maso refused even to walk by thereafter - until 12 years later the decision was made to give birth in that very hospital. Amidst these reflections we follow the pregnancy from conception to birth; thus, early on we have the entry: "I have been very busy making bones today, I say when Helen calls." And later there is Carole reading Gertrude Stein to the baby in utero, also listening to an audio reading of Lolita by Jeremy Irons. The discussion of names (it is "Rose," of course), the "bovine happiness," the special fatigue (she speaks with students in her office with her head on her desk), the childbirth classes and the actual birth, replayed in the journal.
Two years on, one wonders how Maso and her partner are coping with the Terrible Twos. More than anything one would just like to read more journal entries by Carol Maso, stylist supreme, who poses the question (in Break Every Rule): "How to prolong the lyric moment?" - and then gives us, time and time again, writing that does just that." - J.A. (Barcelona Review)

Carole Maso, Break Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire (Counterpoint, 2000)

"Ecstatic essays from the new standard bearer for experimental belles lettres "The future is women, for real this time. I'm sorry, but it's time you got used to it." "'Well, we've been kept from ourselves too long, don't you think?' an old woman says to a friend / two women in the park at dusk." - From Break Every Rule

"In this groundbreaking work of ecstatic criticism, Carole Maso shows why she has risen, over the past fifteen years, as one of the brightest stars in the literary firmament. Ever refusing to be marginalized or categorized by genre, Maso is an incisive, compassionate writer who deems herself "daughter" of William Carlos Williams, a pioneer in combining poetry and fiction with criticism, journalism, and the visual arts. She is "daughter," too, of Allen Ginsberg, who also came from Paterson, New Jersey. Known for her audacity, whether exploring language and memory or the development of the artistic soul, Maso here gives us a form-challenging collection, intelligent, and persuasive."

"Line by line I have tried to get closer to an erotic language... and enter a sexual reverie on the level of language." Thus Maso, author of six novels and a powerful presence in the New York literary world, describes her critical/creative project of "ecstatic criticism" in this latest offering. Defying generic distinctions like "personal essay," "critical theory," "poetry" and "autobiography," Maso provides readers with 10 pieces that, on one level, are freewheeling in style and content and, on another level, are deeply focused and agenda-driven. In the title piece (which originated as remarks made at Brown University's Gay and Lesbian Conference in 1994), Maso encourages writers to challenge all of their assumptions about literary style ("when we make shapes on paper why... does it so often look like the traditional, straight models, why does our longing look... like John Updike's longing?"). Maso, who is from Paterson, N.J., considers herself a "daughter" of William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg, although the guiding presence of Gertrude Stein seems stronger throughout, especially in a piece such as "A Novel of Thank You" (written "for Gertrude Stein"): a meta-novel, an outline for a yet-to-be written novel, including lines of thanks to Stein for "your freedoms. Released at last from the prisons of syntax. Story." Maso's is writing that goes out on a stylistic limb. As a result, readers are likely to be polarized in their reactions. Some will find her advice to "break every rule" of narrative truly subversive, while others may find it stuck in the adolescent fantasy that rebellion against authority is inherently liberating." - Publishers Weekly

"The current collection resembles, if not a monolog, then at least a writer's journal. Autobiographical in nature, it tells of her personal and artistic life: her first childhood experience with the alphabet, a friend's dying of AIDS, and the difficulties of publishing. Like the poet May Sarton, she is subject to strong emotions, ranging from despair to elation to falling in love, whether with language or a partner. " - Nancy P. Shires

"In these ten essays Carole Maso explores the limitless possibilities of language to awaken the senses and open the mind to new levels of thought and creativity. The old prescriptive models - those tired old white men who set the standards - must go. Good-bye Edmund Wilson, Alfred Kazin, and Harold Bloom. Good-bye John Updike. At least, move over and make room for those who don’t fit the established mold. That would be women for the most part: "The future is feminine, for real, this time," Maso pronounces, and it can’t be denied that she is an inspiring example.
In the opening essay, "The Shelter of the Alphabet," Maso gives us an 18-page overview of her life, a mini-bio of sorts, in which language, beginning with that "miraculous handful of charms - the alphabet," is shown to be (and always to have been) her one, true refuge, her "home": "The continued exploration of the possibilities of language is the only real life I know, the only place I’ve lived truly, fully, all these years."
In "Notes of a Lyric Artist Working in Prose: A Lifelong Conversation With Myself Entered Midway" we have a re-evaluation of the novel with all its hidden potential: "A new energy is needed to sustain a contemporary lyric fiction. The energy of writing into one’s desires, passion. The energy derived from many things might sustain such a voice. The energy from writing outside of fashion, against the fictive fashion, even. Easy to be a renegade in such an inauspicious fiction milieu. Use it to your advantage." "Surrender" is a recollection of her first teaching stint, at Illinois State University, a job taken out of desperation but turned to a creative venture. Other essays look closely at her novels, Ava and Aureole, where she explains her method and intent. In "Richter, the Enigma" she writes of her friend, composer Gustave Richter; and in "A Novel of Thank You" for Gertrude Stein - a playful novel/essay ŕ la Stein - she pays tribute to her literary mentor. "The Re-introduction of Color" is a moving personal chronicle of how the free, imaginative, uncompromising young child hit the wall of conformity in her teens: "Having roamed freely and unencumbered, the voices out of nowhere started demanding in a kind of staggered unison and from every direction the same thing -- conform, conform. Abandon song, conform. Abandon reverence, conform. Surrender your freedom. Against nature, against intuition, do something useful." Which she tried, by working in a law firm, until a near suicidal depression took hold and she ended up seeing a therapist - one of a kind, it would seem, who refrained from the "pyscho-babble" (a violation of language that she feared) and set her free to write.
"Break Every Rule" is the paper presented at Brown University’s Gay and Lesbian Conference in which she questions heterosexual models and their reality: "... why when we write... does it so often look like the traditional, straight models, why does our longing look for example like John Updike’s longing?... Does form imply a value system? Is it a statement about perception?"
In the final "Rupture, Verge, and Precipice Precipice, Verge, and Hurt Not" (published in this issue of TBR) Maso confronts, taunts and cajoles the literary mainstream with their prescribed rules and conventional beliefs. It begins as a litany of a series of one or two lines in which she addresses the collective mainstream "you."
. . . .
You imagine yourself to be the holder of some last truth. You imagine yourself to be in some sinking, noble, gilt-covered cradle of civilization.
You romanticize your fin de sičcle, imbuing it with meaning,overtones, implications.
You are still worried about TV.
You are still worried about the anxiety of influence.
. . . .
You think you know what a book is, what reading is, what constitutes a literary experience. In fact you’ve been happy all these years to legislate the literary experience. All too happy to write the rules.
. . . .
You say hypertext will kill print fiction. You pit one against the other in the most cynical and transparent ways in hopes we’ll tear each other to bits.
while you watch. You like to watch. Hold us all in your gaze.
. . . .
But I, for one, am on to you. Your taste for blood, your love of competition, your need to feel endangered, beleaguered, superior. Your need to reiterate, to reassert your power, your privilege, because it erodes.
Let’s face it, you’re panicked.
You think an essay should have a hypothesis, a conclusion, should argue points. You really bore me.
But, says Maso, "Couldn’t we, maybe just possibly coexist?" She interjects here and there with her "wishes."
Wish: that all graduate writing programs with their terminal degrees stop promoting such tiresome recipes for success or go (financially) bankrupt.
. . . .

That the writers and the readers stop being treated by the mainstream houses like idiot children. That the business people get out and stop imposing their "taste" on everyone.
Throughout the essays, she frequently quotes her cultural heroes - Woolf, Stein, Susan Howe, Jean-Luc Godard, Tarkovsky, etc; she employs her trademark repetition of line (a form of "the sentence as incantation"); and, as with the Stein essay, she shows by example the liberating power of lyric prose. Momentum builds in the collection, slowly creating an ecstatic, Ginsbergian howl - let fully loose in the final piece - which decries the conventional and challenges the reader and writer alike to break every rule, as a way of saving oneself, a way to artistic salvation, to freedom. Reading these intelligent and impassioned essays is an exhilarating experience. And the message - so loud and clear and so necessary in this market-driven world - is nowhere better expressed, better "sung," than it is here. Essential reading." - J.A. (Barcelona Review) Carole Maso, Defiance (Penguin, 1998/Plume 1999)

"Land of the free. Home of the brave. Give me a break. - From Defiance
Defiance is the "death book" of Bernadette O’Brien, daughter of Irish Catholic, working class, "normal" parents. There is nothing normal, however, about the child prodigy Bernadette. Sent to a school for gifted children, she soon progresses to graduate from Harvard at age 15, where, after taking her doctorate in physics at 17, she then teaches advanced mathematics . . . until, that is, she murders two male students, is caught in Georgia, and sentenced to the electric chair. While she awaits her fate - which she views with relative indifference - a colleague encourages her to keep a journal. Reluctantly she assumes the task, exploring the labyrinth of her psyche and revealing in circuitous twists and turns the rage and the making of the rage that led to the murders.
The haughty and self-assured Bernadette - far from a Lizzie Borden or a "Dead Woman Walking" figure of pity - pulls us into her inner world and dazzles us with her language, her passions and her keen but fractured intellect. Falling under her spell, we ultimately come to understand and even respect her (a part of her anyway), as does the black social worker, Beatrice - who reaches out to her (my "usherette," as Bernadette refers to her dark-skinned, Dantean guide) - and tries to instil in her a will to live. A flicker of hope, fueled by an unexpected desire, finally takes spark in Bernadette, who previously looked down her nose at the "self-righteous, tedious, sentimental, pathetic" social worker, and although it proves short-lived, it serves to push Bernadette to new levels of awareness. A growing solidarity with some of the other female prisoners further tempers her fury and helps break down her mental and physical isolation. As she attempts to reconstruct her past and discover the "click of the box" - that elusive, Zen-like key to understanding - she reaches into deeper and deeper recesses of the mind: not to find "Something salvaged from the wreckage," she says, but to explore the wreck, to make sense of it. Yet inevitably, in the process a part of her soul is salvaged.
Bernadette’s rage has been developing since her earliest childhood when her mother, a telephone operator without money for child care, had to smuggle her five-year-old to work before anyone else arrived and hide the child under her desk. In this dark, cramped area the little one had to remain quiet for hours at a stretch, and once had to watch (as best she could) her poor mother perform humiliating sexual conduct to please the boss. She chose to lose herself in the numbers of her "exhausted mother’s voice" in order to shut out the pain. Numbers are "safe"; there is also safety in her older brother Fergus’s tree house. Bernadette idolizes Fergus and when he goes off to the Vietnam War at age 18, an undiagnosed dyslexic filled with his own rage, Bernadette becomes an "elective mute" for several years. Upon entering university at age 12, she is called "freak" and gawked at by the older boys. Soon, presumably to gain some leverage, she begins giving them sex for money. Prior to this, she had to be dragged along with her alcoholic father while he conducted his numerous sad affairs.
Abuse, in many forms, spills across the pages. "Every goddamned cliché in the book," as Bernadette says at one point. And that is exactly what Maso is sporting with in this age of "abuse fiction." Much in the way that Tarantino explores violence - taking it to new heights and thereby subverting it, turning it on its head - so Maso systematically works at deconstructing abuse. One is genuinely caught up in the plot and feels Bernadette’s pain and rage while at the same time enjoying a snicker here and there at the obvious overload. Those who have criticized the novel for being too "dark," have completely missed this vital point - and probably aren’t big Tarantino fans either.
But it is true that Bernadette’s powerful rage dominates the pages - rage against sexual inequality, class inequality, smug complacency, apathy . . . and inane politics:
That awful man who had caused our family and thousands of families like ours such grief, that actor. By casting their meager vote for him they were, as usual, securing their own misery once more. The stupidity born of fatigue, of hopelessness. It’s the mindlessness, I detest -- the endless strategies of self-deception among the poor who are not so dim-witted, just tired and grabbing at straws.
She is arrogant, yes, and patronizing, but there is truth in much of what she says. And by the time this poor, now beautiful, Irish Catholic genius comes to dominate a Harvard classroom, the pampered and privileged sons of robber barrens don’t stand a chance. She seduces them all, her "sweet phallocentrics," with her "chic sadomasochism" - demanding celibacy, insisting on no urination for two hours before the three-hour class, ordering nails to be cleaned and clipped, cuticles trimmed: "I want you to be aware of your body during the time you are with me, and begin to bring those energies to bear on the work. . . " They comply, and she does take them to a high and heady realm, revealing the mysteries of numbers, "the most demanding, most gratifying lover you shall ever encounter."
Indeed, yes, they are an exalted lot, my students. My young men. Jaunty, bouncing, brilliant with privilege, and its attendant attributes: confidence, optimism. Summering in Newport or Martha’s Vineyard, still children only several years away from little boyhood, digging on a beach, constructing great towers in the sand. Mother is not far away. Come now, Preston, Theodore, Sterling, to lunch, to lunch. The winds blow gently on them, in the distance a boat’s mast bisects the horizon on Donner on Blitzen. The extraordinary blue where they’ve detected already great mathematical properties, harmonies, proportions. With their natural aptitude for living, their love of assonance and pleasure. Lobsters, crabs, Wellfleet oysters, please, on their plates. Danger is still some ways away. It is part of their ease, their largesse, to believe it is elsewhere, and always shall be so.
But they are "altogether too cozy, too gentle, too slack... Too protected. Not in love with the right things." They’re too safe.
She refers to her students as "patients - dreaming - etherized on [a] table." These and other reworked refrains of Eliot (one sees Shakespeare and others as well) shoot through Bernadette’s dark narrative, providing an apt, perversely erotic running metaphor. ("Let us look then you and I for what.") When the first murder is committed, the victim is so intoxicated by his mentor, now also sexual seductress and dominatrix, that he all but asks for it: "There’s an edge I can’t get without you," he says - and she takes him to it.
It may not be all that conventional, but along with the structural and stylistic intricacies, it is as suspenseful a novel as any in the suspense genre. The reader, like Bernadette’s students, is pulled along by the hypnotic, lyrical power of seductress Maso. As revelation follows revelation, building to the inevitable "click," one is left in awe of the genius manqué Bernadette - one of the most memorable characters in contemporary fiction - and her divine creator, Ms. Maso, who gives voice to the underlying rage - often unrealized and unarticulated - that is as much a part of American society as apple pie... and the NRA, the Boy Scouts, and Huntsville, Texas." - J.A.(Barcelona Review)

Carole Maso, The American Woman In The Chinese Hat (Dalkey Archive Press, 1994 / Penguin, 2005)

"Carole Maso's stunning, erotic fourth novel chronicles the dark, irresistible adventures of an American writer named Catherine who has come to France to live. Set into motion by a single act of abandonment-Catherine's lover of ten years has left her-she falls deeper and deeper into an irretrievable madness. With passionate abandon and detachment Catherine pursues her own destruction. Forcing the boundaries of identity and the limits of her eroticism, she enters a series of blinding sexual encounters with a poet, a fascist, a young Arlesian woman, a fireman, and three thieves. Eerily she splits herself in two so that she is both the one who watches and the one who is watched, creator and creation, author and character, as she observes herself from afar "And I would like to help her," the one who watches says, "but I can't." Finally she meets Lucien, the solitary, cynical, beautiful man with long hair who looks as though he has "stepped out of an unmade film by the dead Truffaut," and through this mysterious, doomed, bittersweet liaison Catherine makes one last attempt to halt her decline through the redemptive act of story-telling. She begins to invent the story of their lives, telling it to him half in English, half in French, joining their solitudes for a moment before losing forever her belief that the shapely, hopeful prospects of narrative make sense of expenence. "She notices how everything is given up or taken away" as she loses the power of the imagination or memory or the body to console, and finally of language to convey meaning. This mesmerizing drama of sex, betrayal, and dissolution with its shattering inevitable conclusion is played out against the dazzling backdrop of the beautiful, indifferent Cote d'Azur in summer. Written in a dwindling lexicon with a simple, warped musicality, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat is a dark, uncompromising, seductive work of art."

"Catherine, 33, beautiful and vibrant, bisexual (though preferring women) and passionately driven as a writer, drifts through the bars and bedrooms of Vence on the French Riviera seeking sexual partners. Maso's ( Ghost Dance ) enchanting fourth novel unfolds in a fragmented, poetic prose that is exciting, delicious and lucid. Jilted by Lola, her American lover, Catherine tries to quell her emotional turmoil with a chain of lovers, finally connecting with Lucien, a sweet longhaired youth she picks up at the village fountain. Under the glaring Cote d'Azur sun, Catherine feels herself ignited by a manic misery she compulsively funnels into her writing. Language is the shape of her pain and her desire: she continually inscribes her life as she experiences it, reinventing herself in the pages of her notebook. Maso remains in control of her preoccupation with the writerly act, e.g., splitting Catherine's identity into third- and first-person narratives, maintaining one voice that is mischievously aloof. Paradoxically, the author presents the novel as a finished artifact, yet creates an illusion of improvisation as Catherine suffers and scribbles. The fountain forms a recurrent motif, along with images of birds and radiant light, until the novel's striking finale." - Publishers Weekly

"For bisexual novelist Catherine, love is ``small protection against the overwhelming desire to suffer.'' In fact, what Catherine calls love is actually the sort of sexual obsessiveness that has killed her brother, poisoned her relationships, and made Michael Jackson's show in Nice le concert de l'annee. When the American woman whom she has abused for years can't take it anymore, Catherine throws herself into a series of affairs despite the obvious threats of AIDS and her ever-deepening melancholy. Her only positive relationship is an unconsummated one with Sylvia, a fascinating older woman who has known some of the literary and intellectual giants of the 20th century. Like Maso's Ava ( LJ 4/1/93), this book may shock the genteel reader, but others will be enthralled. Highly recommended for all public and academic libraries." - Jim Dwyer

"Shrewd, subtle, unsettling, the artistry of The American Woman in the Chinese Hat lies in the intimacy one feels with the author—the kind of intimacy that Catherine herself fails to discover but that the story of her doomed consciousness makes possible between reader and writer." - The New York Times Book Review

"Ultimately, the book succeeds on many levels: thematically, formally, narratively, emotionally. More importantly, Maso seems to be in the midst of creating something new, and reading through her...morepublished works so far, one can witness a genuinely innovative and restless artist at work, developing, revising, and continually finding her voice. Whatever her literary indulgences, she is one of the few published contemporary writers in this exhausted age who is in the middle of an exciting creative struggle, moving on from her old work and making something happening now." - The San Francisco Bay Guardian

"It's a book that begins and ends in a flash of light, with a clatter of voices all speaking French. In between is silence, a glass of wine, a knife, a dark room and a lot of passion." - Los Angeles Times Book Review

"It is perhaps the book's greatest achievement that it can be read many times and still reveal something new, still offer secrets to be puzzled out. This open-ended yet rigorously composed... more fiction is far more satisfying that the artificial straitjacket of the linear narrative where everything must be neatly resolved, leaving nothing for the reader to reflect on... When the history of the twentieth century is written, I have a hunch that Maso will be recognized as one of our greatest writers—and one of our greatest lesbian writers." - Lambda Book Report

Carole Maso, The Art Lover (W W Norton, 2006)

"What is the power of art in the face of death? In The Art Lover Carole Maso has created an elegant and moving narrative about a woman experiencing (and reliving) the most painful transitions of her life. Caroline, the novel's protagonist, returns to New York after the death of her father—ostensibly to wrap things up and take care of necessary "business"—where her memory and imagination conspire to lay before her all her griefs and joys in a rebellious progression. In different voices, employing a collage-like fragmentation, Maso gently unfolds The Art Lover in much the same way the fragile and prehistoric fiddlehead fern unfolds throughout the novel, bringing with subtle grace the ever-entangled feelings of grief and love into full and tender view. Various illustrations throughout."

"Caroline, a novelist and poet, returns from an isolated artists colony to Manhattan, where her widowed, art-historian father has recently died. As one strand of the narrative follows her rediscovery of the city--and of a friend diagnosed with AIDS--another follows the characters she creates in her prose; interspersed throughout are reproductions of pictures and newspaper clippings that inspire her. This narrative cord ruptures with the introduction of ``Carole,'' the persona of Maso, and descriptions of herself at work on the novel while her own beloved friend is dying, Carole/the writer's art incapable of saving him. Despite its trendy structure and themes, this work is steered by anything but a narcissistic postmodernism. Maso ( Ghost Dance ) is not content to muse on the relationship between life and art; she brings to life a ``bombardment of images and sounds,'' fashioning a pattern of astonishing complexity and beauty. The tough-mindedness, originality and wit of her perceptions are intoxicating." - Publishers Weekly

"This nontraditional novel presents an experimental face to the reader: illustrations, newspaper clips, and art reproductions are interspersed with a story line buried within a story--perhaps within yet another story. The narrator, a novelist, has moved back to New York to settle her father's estate (he was an art historian). She struggles with her grief and guilt at her father's death and stands by a childhood friend who is dying of AIDS. She begins another novel: by giving the conflicts in her life a fictional context, she tries to bring order and beauty--and some degree of understanding--out of chaos. Interesting reading for those with a literary bent." - Linda L. Rome

Carole Maso, Aureole (City Lights Books, 2003)

"Two women leaf through a book of French slang, with its delicate and delicious mixing of food and sex. A man and a woman sit in a Parisian dive, caressing each other's hands. Two lovers take late-night refuge in a beach cabana, their lovemaking lit by the lights of his automobile. These are glimpses of some of the haunting scenes and characters that people this sometimes wild, sometimes elusive exploration of desire's magical and subversive qualities."

"Showing affinities with Jeanette Winterson, whose last novel (Art and Lies) was also her most experimental, Maso's fifth book (after The American Woman in the Chinese Hat) is a lesbian, erotic fantasia so drunk with language games, impressionistic imagery and self-referential play as to be almost plotless. "I want you in the liminal stage. In the in between place," announces one woman to her lover as they lie in bed in a Paris apartment in the first chapter, evoking the themes of desire and liminality that unite the chapters that follow. Blending fiction and verse, often set on the threshold of desire and its consummation, narrated in a trance-like voice marked by ellipses and kaleidoscopic imagery of oceanic objects, fruit and sexual couplings, each chapter showcases a different lesbian, bisexual or onanistic fantasy. "Make Me Dazzle" details the lusty romance of a female professor and a muscular woman athlete who meet at a seaside town in winter; "Dreaming Steven Lighthouse Keeper" depicts the sticky daydreams of a disconsolate man tending a lighthouse; in "Exquisite Hour," a woman injecting heroin watches her life flash past in a snow-shrouded haze. Maso's freewheeling prose-poetry and bawdy cataloguing technique suggest a lesbian updating of Walt Whitman's "Song of Myself." Yet her best linesthose that manage to make language itself corporeal, performative and sexyare submerged in a stream of arch non sequiturs: "Let us wash together our rosy lentils. In the dusk. In the dark. We'll live on oysters there, and sea snails." In some readers this book will evoke the erotic, free-associative thought that occurs as one drifts off to sleepin others it will induce it firsthand." - Publishers Weekly

"The author of such offbeat titles as The American Woman in the Chinese Hat here enters rarefied territory, and some readers won't be able to follow. Categorized as a novel, this book is in fact an extended prose poem on eroticism, with only the hint of character and plot to guide the reader. Two women make love in Paris, and when the curious (male) lover of one asks for an accounting, he hears a list of lovers reeled off alphabetically. An encounter on a beach, the life of a lonely lighthouse keeper-all emerge from the prose, scattered like petals in single-sentence fragments across the page: "When her lips devour the pulsing oysters of the woman, they read from The Book of Dreams"; "Women are so beautiful in their curiosity"; "It is the madness then, the extravagance of roses opening in December"; "and your breats-cup of milk cup of mysterious universe." Some readers will find writing like this stirringly poetic; others will choke on the overripeness. For ambitious collections only.-Barbara Hoffert, " - Library Journal

"An astonishingly vapid pornographic fantasy, from the Brown/Columbia professor whose previous labors in this vineyard have been praised by some as masterly.
Maso does not so much write books as collate fragments. Like The American Woman, this is a collection of poetic riffs and very short vignettes drawn together by voice rather than narrative, thus lacking a strongly sustained unifying element. Such stories as emerge are imagistic, slight, and entirely hermetic: "The Women Wash Lentils" portrays two women discussing food in bed, whereas "Exquisite Hour" and "The Changing Room" are straightforward recollections of sexual encounters. Erotic fiction, as a rule, is a train that can't carry much literary freight without getting bogged down in pretension, and here the game is given away in the very first line ("When they are French, which they often are, especially in bed they say derangement"). The exotic settings (usually French), the epicurean obsession with food (usually oysters), and the kinky sex (usually on a beach) are pornographic clichés along the lines of stiletto heels or fishnet stockings, and little is added to them by Maso's rambling meditative digressions ("You're in love with the crazy white-haired girl. She's sewing poems into her sleeve, they read: `dreamy lighthouse keeper mild Steven' "). Although the poetic sequences contain striking passages and vivid images, they can't convey a story in any recognizable sense, running the high risk of rapidly coming to seem pointless. Unfortunately, they form almost the whole of the book.
In all, turgid and pompous." - Kirkus Reviews

Carole Maso, Beauty Is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo (Counterpoint, 2002)

"A vibrant series of prose poems, Beauty Is Convulsive is a passionate meditation on one of the twentieth century's most compelling and famous artists, Frida Kahlo (1907-1954). At the age of nineteen, Kahlo's life was transformed when the bus in which she was riding was hit by a trolley car. Pierced through by a steel handrail and broken in many places, she entered a long period of convalescence during which she began to paint self-portraits. In 1928, at twenty-one, she joined the Communist Party and came to know Diego Rivera. The forty-one-year-old Rivera, already Mexico's most famous painter, was impressed by the force of Kahlo's personality and by the authenticity of her art. The two soon married. Though they were devoted to each other, intermittent affairs on both sides, Frida's grief over her inability to bear a child, and her frequent illnesses made the marriage tumultuous."

"This impressionistic book recaps some of the more infamous events of the Mexican artist's life. Maso (The Art Lover; Aureole) relies on Kahlo's diary, as well as on letters, medical reports and Hayden Herrera's biography, Frida, and focuses primarily on the mental and physical torment the painter suffered after being maimed in a trolley accident when she was 19. For years after the accident, Kahlo's doctors prescribed a series of almost medieval corsets and a constant flow of painkillers; she also suffered miscarriages and eventually lost a leg to gangrene. Somewhat fewer pages are devoted to her painting and her relationship with Diego Rivera, although both are duly noted. Maso renders all this in an experimental hybrid of prose and poetry; nonlinearity, repetition, multiple voices and fragmentation dominate, and she shows little regard for punctuation. Some readers will inevitably find this distracting, but it feels appropriate to the jagged world of pain, deformity and drug addiction in which Kahlo spent more than half her life. Fortunately, despite the grim goings-on, Maso, like her subject, is not without a sense of humor (she slyly notes the commercialization and fetishizing of all things Frida and tosses quotes from Kahlo's detractors, as well as her own critics, into the mix), which helps her to capture the "absurdity of the maimed and desperately decorated." - Publishers Weekly

"In this poetry-like fiction, novelist and essayist Maso (Defiance, etc.) uses images from the life of Frida Kahlo to create, as she describes in her author's note, "a deeply personal meditation: an attempt to be in some kind of dialog with [Kahlo] across time and space-and with myself." This interaction between the author and her subject is the heart of this book, making it an imaginative, internalized interpretation of Kahlo's life and work, even if it is reliant on factual material, including Hayden Herrera's Frida. Maso's fiction is inclined toward the heights of passion and despair, so Kahlo's life, marked as it was by physical anguish and by her sensual and often pain-riddled self-portraits, makes for fitting material. Repetition, songlike cadences, and the occasional first-person narrator will make this book more appealing to readers interested in how prose, poetry, and biography intersect than to those wanting straightforward narration. But interest in Kahlo, spiked by the recent film and perhaps by Kate Braverman's Incantations of Frida K., may draw new readers to this consistently inventive writer. Maso's prose has generated wide respect, making this an important purchase for libraries with literary fiction collections." - Carolyn Kuebler
Carole Maso, Ghost Dance (Ecco, 1995)

"This haunting, often surreal first novel vividly captures the struggles of a young woman, Vanessa Turin, as she attempts to recover her family and her past. At the novel's outset, Christine, Vanessa's talented and tormented poet-mother, has disappeared. In time, both her father and brother also desert her, in separate but equally inexplicable ways. Overcome with loss, Vanessa turns to her inner world, and through her imagination re-creates her life, both past and present. Maso's prose is repetitious and dreamlike, and her poetic images are sharp and evocative. Unconventional and intense, this novel tells a harrowing tale of the human search for love and understanding. Recommended for most fiction collections." - Jeanne Buckley

Read also:
"An Interview with Carole Maso"by Steven Moore"

"An Interview with Carole Maso" by Brian Evenson

"Interview with Carole Maso" by Jill Adams

"Reading Carole Maso" by Carolyn Kuebler


  1. Carole*s senteces are lush path for a curious man who is wondering by the mystery of a womanly being.


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