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Susan Cokal - Is a picaresque narrative acceptable for exploring the moral margins of male behavior, but inappropriate for depicting women who also find themselves caught in marginal circumstances? Are women, even in fiction, to be judged by different standards than men?

Breath and Bones
Susann Cokal, Breath and Bones, Unbridled Books, 2006.

In 1884, Famke Summerfugl is ousted from her convent in Denmark for ... sensuousness and pulled from servitude by a second-rate painter named Albert Castle. Loving to be looked at, and able to stand perfectly still without shivering, Famke is the ideal artist’s model.
When Albert takes his eight-foot masterpiece and leaves his model behind, Famke sets out over the Atlantic, convinced that she is his muse.
Following Mirabilis, her highly acclaimed debut, Susann Cokal blends pre-Raphaelite painting, American brothels, Utahan polygamists, a bit of cross-dressing, a dynamite-wielding labor movement, one California millionaire, and the invention of electrical stimulation (as treatment for consumption) into a comic novel that gallops across the American west.

The heroine of Susann Cokal's "Breath and Bones" is a painter's model who leaves her native Denmark in the 1880's, determined to track down her lover, a British painter who has vanished deep into the American West. Tubercular and penniless, Famke Sommerfugl has one great asset: the Ripley-like ability to awaken violent desire in almost everyone whose help she requires. Cokal's storytelling blends the morbid and the titillating with imaginative exuberance. And while the story of Famke's quest is no literary masterpiece, it brings to mind the question Martin Amis asked of "Lolita": how was it possible to limit her adventures to "this 300-page blue streak -- to something so embarrassingly funny, so unstoppably inspired, so impossibly racy?"
In the universe of "Breath and Bones," appearances are reality, although Famke's unscrupulous habit of picking up and discarding identities occasionally backfires. "Breath and Bones" speeds along like the narrow-gauge railways that carry her through the West, so the reader needs to keep a sharp eye out for the clues Cokal has dropped, hinting at the painter's whereabouts -- especially since they're couched in allusions from Arthurian legend, the Brothers Grimm, Hans Christian Andersen and classic novels like "Jane Eyre," along with more far-flung sources like Robert Coover's "Ghost Town" and a song cycle called "Stardust County." If Famke can complete her journey from the conventional first definition of "muse" to the now rarely used second (which is "poet"), her accomplishment will be all the greater: she'll need no gaze but the one in her own mirror. -

It’s almost impossible not to be amused, then intrigued and finally impressed with the heroine of Susann Cokal’s new novel, Breath and Bones….Cokal has a special gift for starting many of her chapters with lines that zing. Actually, each begins with some sort of quoted matter, but it is Cokal’s own prose that arrests….At various points in its narrative, Breath and Bones elicits laughter, empathy, shock. But Cokal pulls our strings while maintaining a consistent, authoritative voice; she is sure of herself without being arrogant or chilly. Essentially, this is a book about art, flesh and spirit — and Cokal delves into all three areas of her inquiry with wit but also heart.” —John Mark Eberhart, The Kansas City Star
“The story is a romp, in the tradition of Tom Jones, and a quinta-sensual novel with characters forever circling prey
Pages Magazine

In this postmodern world of meta-narrative and fractured plotlines, books-within-books and fictional footnotes, it's rare to find a book that holds to convention which such white-knuckle ferocity as Susann Cokal's second novel, Breath and Bones.
I'd like to say it's brave, radical simplicity, a return to solid, un-pretentious literature, but I can't.
In the interests of disclosure, I should mention that I was once, very briefly, a student of Ms. Cokal's at Cal Poly SLO. I went into this book with solid expectations, and was astounded at every turn by the sheer audacity of the awfulness laid out in the pages of Breath and Bones.
The protagonist, with predictable "flaming red hair," "sapphire eyes," and "ruby lips" (all phrases which I humbly submit should be officially excised from the Allowable Novel Phrases as a Triumvirate of Evil) is Famke, a Danish beauty who dutifully follows the storyline we have come to expect from such women: she is raised in a convent where she discovers her first quotidian twinges of sexuality with the other girls, so that her story will have an edgy spark of lesbianism. However, with equal typicality, she finds that Sapphism essentially unsatisfying. (I mean, we all know that a penis is necessary for that "shimmering feeling Down There," don't we? I wish I were kidding. That's a direct quote, complete with Capitalization.) A good girl at heart, she is called "wild" by the nuns for no particular reason other than her good looks and a particularly melodramatic scene involving exploding soap (again, not kidding. In hindsight, I believe the exploding soap was actually foreshadowing) and forced into a life of one partner after the other in the exotic Old West--where she hits, the jacket promises, all the major landmarks: gold mines, Mormons, California spa towns, and brothels--after her heartless Pre-Raphaelite lover, Albert, leaves her with nothing after using her as a model for his masterpiece. Of course, his letter telling her he loves her and wants her back arrives just as she's left for America to look for him...does this sound familiar? It should--you can find it on Lifetime any day of the week.
This is a romance novel that thinks it's too good for the genre.
The problem is, Famke is a horrible woman, and despite the narrative's assurances that we must love her, the reader cannot identify with such a shallow, idiotic, and careless person. She is careless in the sense of Gatsby's Daisy Buchanan--in her selfish pursuit of the man who left her, she ruins the lives of countless people, even causes the death of a few, and actually vandalizes her lover's paintings in a very precious attempt to "improve" them. She has no ambition but to be a model for this man, and the endless pages of her masturbatory daydreaming about how wonderful it will be to take care of him and hold still for all eternity are truly nauseating. But everyone, everyone falls in love with her, because she is just the most beautiful thing that ever lived. They fall in love with her at first sight, and they search the world for her until they die. She doesn't even have to say a word. When she is reduced to prostitution, her john is happy just to look at her, and asks for no more. This is facile, flaccid storytelling that even fairy tales would decry. Breath and Bones is full of such precious and convenient scenes, scenes which verge on salacious material, but just cannot take the leap. In fact, the story opens with a group of people who have had her body embalmed so that they can all look at it as much as they like--there was the seed of a truly disturbing and fascinating story, there. It's too bad Cokal was more interested in creating this high-class Mary Sue without an ounce of Daisy Buchanan's strength of character.
Yet, while this cliched romance-novel set up is adhered to with loyalty verging on religion, it has an essentially conservative bent. Famke does not really enjoy sex and engages in it with anyone other than Albert only with reluctance. Her first orgasms are practically forced via 19th century vibrating machines. In by far the novel's most disgusting and disturbing turn, Famke cannot even cease referring to her genitals as "Down There" and sex as "that shimmering feeling Down There" when she has had sex with many men and the previously mentioned machine. This bizarre infantilization is part of what turns Breath and Bones into the exploits of a vapid fool traipsing about the Old West with all the entitlement of Paris Hilton, her obsession and bad behavior rewarded time and time again, simply because she is beautiful. Yet we are given no reason to assume this is satire, no knowing narrator to tell us we are walking through Vanity Fair, that we are meant to believe Famke is rotten--on the contrary, over and over she is shown in an almost saintly light, right down to her over-dramatic, martyred end, which, by the way, involves a very large explosion that packs all the subtlety of, well, any large explosion. Famke is the whole of this novel, and while Cokal may want us to believe her Danish lass a Becky Sharp, she falls far short of the mark, and leaves the story rudderless.
Breath and Bones is truly, shockingly bad. Nothing about it struck the right note, and much of it was nonsensical--for example, like any self-respecting romantic heroine, Famke is consumptive. Though she has TB from a very young age, an advanced enough case to vomit up blood quite frequently, she miraculously fails to infect her entire boat full of immigrants, anyone on Ellis Island, on successive trains, or in successive brothels. She has Hollywood TB, you see, where it simply makes you attractively weak and pale but isn't an infectious disease that ravaged half the world. Considering that Cokal's last novel, Mirabilis, concerned a miraculous, perpetually-lactating woman who never experienced nipple-chafe or back problems, I wonder if she has had any practical experience with human bodies at all. Even laying this, and the rest of the ridiculous plot, aside, the language of the novel was so simplistic as to give Potter and Co. a run for their broomsticks, replete with punishable clichés and punishing us with a grown woman's voice that sounds like a 13-year-old diarist bemoaning her True Love Lost. It falls prey to that most cloying of realist traps: the novel about someone Having Sex in Exotic Locales, or Exotic Sex in Repressive and Boring Locales, which sums up just about half of 20th century literature. Cokal does nothing to raise her above the throng.
I recall Cokal instructing us on one of the few days I spent in her class before shuffling my schedule, telling us that writing isn't fun, it's work, and if we're having fun, we're not professionals. I didn't care for the sentiment then, but now I think she was right. Her writing isn't fun, it's work, and working through 350 pages of brain-clawing cliche and the faux-wise ruminations of the lovechild of Miss Hilton and Betty Boop was just too much for this reviewer to stomach. - Catherynne M. Valente

The danger of reading a novel primarily for the opportunity to "identify" with its characters--as well as to interpret their actions by judging them on moral grounds--seems well-illustrated by this guest review at The Mumpsimus of Susann Cokal's Breath and Bones (Unbridled Books). The reviewer, Catherynne M. Valente, writes of the novel's protagonist:
Famke is a horrible woman, and despite the narrative's assurances that we must love her, the reader cannot identify with such a shallow, idiotic, and careless person.
Even if it were true that this character is "a horrible woman"--deliberately portrayed as such by the author--would this be a good reason to so dislike this novel as to call it "truly, shockingly bad"? (Vallente's focus is almost entirely on the moral failings of this character, although she does pause occasionally for an ad hominem comment on the author herself, as when she wonders "if she has had any practical experience with human bodies at all.") Surely we can all think of fiction we've read in which one or more of the main characters are morally dubious, if not just plain repulsive, but which we nevertheless judge to be compelling and aesthetically powerful books. (Journey to the End of the Night? Naked Lunch? Much of Flannery O'Connor?) Shouldn't it be a critical rule of thumb that in order to fairly assess a work of literature for what it seems to be offering us we make an effort to put aside moral judgment, especially judgment of fictional characters, until we have honestly determined the role these characters play in the work's aesthetic order and in the context of its broader thematic concerns?
However, it simply is not the case that the protagonist of Breath and Bones is the "shallow, idiotic, and careless person" this reviewer takes her to be. Famke Summerfugl (or Ursula Summerfield, or Dante Castle--her identity is as quickly changed as her location as she travels across the western United States) is determined to get what she wants (a reunion with the artist for whom she has served as a model back in her native Denmark), but her very single-mindedness is at least as much the product of an uncertain sense of self as it is a more willful character flaw. Indeed, it is her lack of a truly developed personality, her ability to become the object of others' obsessions, to take on whatever attributes are required to survive in an environment she is in some ways too inexperienced to know is hostile to her presence, that really define her as a character. Famke leaves a fair amount of distress and destruction in her wake, but little of it is due to her "careless" or "idiotic" behavior. If anything she cares too much (especially in comparison to many of the people she encounters, who have more or less acceeded to their limited circumstances), as her quest is motivated by her belief in the artistic genius of Albert Castle and in her own role as his inspiration, and she is anything but an idiot. When finally she does reunite with Albert, she has been able to learn enough both about herself and human nature to recognize he's not nearly the man she had in her earlier romantic haze taken him to be.
It might be that Catherynne Valente reacted as she did to Famke because she failed to consider that Breath and Bones is essentially a picaresque novel, Famke its picaro. One doesn't normally approach a picaresque novel with an assumption that its protagonist will be a "rounded" character who will provoke either emotional attachment or moral revulsion. Since the root meaning of "picaro" is "rogue," if we were to demand of such a character that he/she be a model of propriety, we would be denying the picaresque form its motivating agency. It's the "adventures" of the picaro that solicit our attention in this kind of fiction, and whatever change or enhancement of character that emerges is secondary to the experiences to which the character is submitted, to the process by which change or growth might (or might not) occur.
Cokal has in this case herself enhanced our perception of the picaresque form by making her protagonist a woman. Famke is neither more nor less "horrible" (or desperate or confused) than most picaresque anti-heroes, but surely one of the problems Catherynne M. Valente has with her is that she's an anti-heroine, a woman taking on the role traditionally associated with misfits and outcasts, one that inherently calls for a certain amount of guile and disregard for moral niceties. One wonders if Valente would express the same contempt for a male character engaged in similarly venturesome conduct  as Famke Summerfugl. Is a picaresque narrative acceptable for exploring the moral margins of male behavior, but inappropriate for depicting women who also find themselves caught in marginal circumstances? Are women, even in fiction, to be judged by different standards than men? If we find ourselves having moral qualms about a female character acting in ways that are conventional in a literary mode usually reserved for men, should we be rethinking our expectations of "female behavior" or our assumptions about those conventions? Perhaps these are questions Susann Cokal would like us to ask while reading her book.
(And I certainly don't think that Cokal's narrative insists that "we must love" Famke. It seems to me that Cokal has written the kind of novel she's written precisely to induce in us a degree of ambivalence about her main character. To engage in the kind of questioning of literary means and ends I've just outlined almost requires that we feel uneasy about our response to a character like Famke.)
At one point Valente calls Breath and Bones "a romance novel that thinks it's too good for the genre" and at another claims it falls into a certain kind of "realist trap," so it's hard to know whether she thinks it strays too far from reality or not far enough. However, it is certainly true that the kind of quest narrative the novel uses allows for a fair amount of exaggeration, coincidence, and melodrama (think of Tom Jones, of many of Dickens's novels, or, indeed, of Huckleberry Finn.) Breath and Bones incorporates its share of all of these, but never to the extent that we begin to disbelieve in its created illusion of an historical time and place. (In this regard, I actually found the historical epigraphs presented at the beginning of chapters completely superfluous. The novel's success depends on the integrity of its own narrative logic, not on the broader historical picture it presents.) Thus, although B & B is not recognizably "postmodern," it also is not simply a "realist" novel retreating into the past. (And, again, the only reason I can see to call it a "romance novel" is that its protagonist is a woman who believes herself to be in love.)
Finally, Valente says of the style of Breath and Bones that "the language of the novel was so simplistic as to give Potter and Co. a run for their broomsticks." She must have in mind a passage such as this, as Albert Castle is working on his pre-Raphaelite portrait of Famke as Nimue:
. . .He had beautiful fingers, long and bony, with a rainbow of paint always under the nails, and to Famke's mind they produced wonders. They had drawn her as an earthly Valkyrie, in a cloak made of swans' feathers (and nothing else); painted her as a nearly naked Gunnlod, the loveliest of the primordial Norse giants, watching over the three kettles of wisdom in a deep, deep cave (Albert seemed to very fond of caves.) And now this Nimue, a wizard's lover, who could be from icy Scandanavia but would be of great interest to the English critics who could make Albert's fortune. Famke had never heard of Merlin or of Nimue, but Albert was teaching her a great deal about the mythology of her people. He liked to set her lessons from the traveler's guidebooks scattered over the mantel.
There is a certain ingenuousness to a passage like this (although the novel does not stick exlusively to Famke's implied point of view), but ultimately it works as much to expose the pretensions of Albert Castle ("Albert seemed very fond of caves") as the "simplicity" of Famke's perceptions. And this clash between Famke's innocence and the rather sordid actualities she encounters (both in America and in Denmark) ultimately provides the novel with what might be its most resonant conflict.
Catherynne M. Valente and I seem to have read different books. She read a story motivated by the actions of a morally compromised romantic heroine. I read a well-executed variation on an always-renewable form that if anything explicitly challenges a reflexively "moral" response to works of literature. - Daniel Green


Famke was not a virtuous woman when she met Albert Castle. According to the Catholic precepts by which she’d been raised, she was no longer truly virginal, as she confessed to him in a bedtime conversation. Few orphan girls, even those raised by the good sisters of the Convent of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, could lay claim to that desirable state once they entered the wider world—and why should they bother to hold on to something that would be taken from them once they’d passed communion and were placed in service with some family inevitably headed by a prurient husband, a curious son, or a querulous grandfather who would have his way?
“Darling, you’re so fierce,” Albert said as he squeezed her.
“It is a fierce world,” she said. “Overhovedet, especially, for a girl.”
Besides, immured in her orphanage, Famke had found the idea of sin exciting. It offered the possibility of something other than what she had, something that must be at least pleasant, if not delicious, since the straight-backed nuns who had married Christ were so vehemently against it.
So Famke had taken sin into her own hands. The boys on the other side of the orphanage were just as curious as she, and intrigued by her interest. She courted them first through a crack in the wall separating boys’ and girls’ dormitories. This was during the exercise period, when the children were encouraged to enjoy fresh air and wholesome movement, trotting up and down two barren courtyards, occasionally playing desultory games of tag or statue around the lone elder tree in each one. Famke would lean into her wall and see an eye, almost always blue, peering back at her through the rubble and leaves. They would talk, whispering arrangements for rendezvous that, under the nuns’ watchful glare, never came to pass. Once, Famke wormed her thin hand along the crack, and the boy on the other side (a Mogens, she believed, or maybe a Viggo—there were so many of both, arriving with those un-Catholic names pinned to their diapers so the good nuns felt bound to retain them) managed to reach just far enough in to touch the tip of one finger. The contact gave her a thrill she’d never known before, and for a good many months it was what she thought sin was, this furtive touch within a wall.
Image result for Susann Cokal, Mirabilis,
Susan Cokal, Mirabilis, Blue Hen, 2001.

A medieval village under siege turns to the most unlikely saints and saviors in this darkly comic debut about religious expediency and human ecstasy.
Villeneuve, France, Anno Domini 1372. The village is under siege and people are starving when Bonne Mirabilis, wet nurse to the wealthiest and most enigmatic woman in town, realizes that she alone has the bounty with which to feed the hungry-and not by convincing her patroness to open her warehouses.
But it's a defiant act of generosity: When she was twelve years old, her sainted mother, the two priests suspected of being her father, and all the village women who believed Bonne's conception had been immaculate were locked into the church and set afire.
With a masterful sense of history and the visceral spirit of The Decameron, newcomer Susann Cokal combines the outrageous and the wondrous into the story of Bonne, a woman born "God's bastard," on her way to sainthood with the troop of ascetics, mystics, lovers, and jesters who keep her milk flowing.
Mirabilis is a remarkable and confident debut-an endlessly surprising tale about appetite and miracle, all four humors in abundance, and human ecstasy of every sort-a novel that carries the reader into that sweet rare air between the ridiculous and the sublime.

Sprawling, spiritual and crudely sensual, Cokal's debut novel is neither for the weak of heart nor the faint of stomach. In 14th-century France, in the village of Villeneuve, a town beset by plague witnesses a miracle: a young virgin takes her first communion and levitates above an awestruck crowd. But Blanche the Astonishing goes from saint to pariah when the girl bears an illegitimate child nine months later and refuses to name the father. At age 12, that child, Bonne Tardieu, witnesses her mother's imprisonment and immolation at the hands of an angry clergy. She grows up to be a wet nurse, but business is bad for an outcast with only a devout sculptor and a troubled dwarf as friends. Bonne's life changes when she catches the eye of Radegonde Putemonnie, the town's wealthiest woman, who is pregnant with her dead husband's child and stands to inherit his fortune only if she can bear an heir. Radegonde selects Bonne as her wet nurse, which means ample access to food at a time when the rest of the besieged villagers are starving. Bonne shares her good fortune, allowing the townspeople who rejected her to suckle at her always-flowing breasts. When a series of coincidences lead to the mysterious appearance of a Madonna sculpted in Bonne's likeness, the villagers hail her a saint and Radegonde a witch. Bonne is perplexed not only by her sudden change in social status but by her very unsaintly attraction to the seductive Radegonde. A visceral, absorbing account of medieval life from the perspective of its outsiders, Cokal's unsettling novel is rich with passions both religious and sexual and with an awareness of the occasional fine line between the two.  - Publishers Weekly

Bonne Mirabilis is on her own in the medieval village of Villeneuve. Her mother, believed by some to have conceived Bonne immaculately, has been burnt as a heretic. Her grandmother is no help, having walled herself up in the church as a hermit on learning of her daughter's pregnancy. Alone in the world and soon pregnant with a fatherless child of her own, Bonne becomes a wet nurse, a good living for a young unmarried woman in 14th-century France. The strange thing about Bonne, however, is the sheer abundance of her milk and the healing powers it seems to have. Soon she finds herself in the employ of a mysterious and wealthy pregnant widow, who begins feeding Bonne rich food to ensure her unborn child's future diet. The feasts continue even after Villeneuve is besieged by the English and the rest of the town begins to starve. Bonne becomes frustrated with her mistress's refusal to open her substantial larders to the town, and so she takes matters into her own hands and feeds the townsfolk with her milk. This beautifully crafted story about miracles and belief will not soon be forgotten. The characters are wholly believable, and the medieval world is presented in all its rich brutality and color by an author who knows every detail of the period. One expects to stay up late to finish the latest John Sandford, but a books about medieval wet nurses with dwarfs and monks and exotic, sapphic witches? Yet readers will, for it is that compelling. Recommended for all fiction collections. - Wendy Bethel