After putting down Ariela Freedman’s engaging novel, A Joy To Be Hidden, I remembered the afternoon I sat in New York’s Washington Square Park and envied a young man’s ability to blow enormous bubbles out of his variously-shaped wands, bubbles like translucent, purple amoebae wafting briefly in air before bursting into a million drops on the path. He would have needed more than mere dish detergent to create his art, and I do think blowing bubbles is connected with painting and poetry, the difference perhaps residing only in substance and temporality. Astonishing but evanescent, bubbles like food are meant to perish almost as soon as they are created. I discovered later that polymers are added to the soapy mixture to help create elasticity and size.
A Joy To Be Hidden is very much a novel about the relationships of women with women, about a woman’s body at times in conflict with intellect and desire, and also about memory and perishability. It is set in New York City of the 90s. Alice the main character lives a twenty minute walk east of Washington Square, closer to Tompkins Square, the latter now gentrified, but it was once a refuge or a camping ground for the dispossessed and homeless, and the scene of a famous riot in the 80s. I wonder if the gentleman in the beaded cap snugly fitted on to a head of hefty dreadlocks, who blew bubbles as rotund as a Rubenesque lady, also performed in that park. Did he know by the way that he performed on the burial site of many thousands of poor people who had perished during one epidemic or another in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? I suspect not, since the discovery of human remains is fairly recent. When this potter’s field became a public park, surrounded by townhouses of the well-to-do, including for a time Henry James’s family, is part of the city’s history. Like the construction workers who discovered skeletons and death chambers, I find it compelling that in Freedman’s novel, Alice discovers remains of her grandmother’s life in the latter’s apartment; not a corpse, but a purse of gold coins, a ring, and a photograph - signs of a hidden life, which will lead Alice to dig into and unearth the past, to uncover both origins and consequences.
Our heroine is an intelligent, self-aware woman with a passion for literature: that is to say, her head is filled with the words and stories of dead people. She is a graduate student at the local university and teaches a compulsory writing class to students, which intensifies her sense of narrative, as well as futility. The dark side of writing arguably is precisely that: what’s the point? What purpose does it serve? I cannot be the only writer who asks this question. Blowing bubbles, indeed. The lack of tangibility wearies the spirit, but literature has Alice very much in its grip, just the way the fabled city itself captures the heart and imagination.
The novel seems overloaded with literary allusions and name-dropping, except– and this must be understood – that Alice perceives and attempts to explain the world through writing, thoughts about writing, and the compulsion to construct a narrative about her past and present. Literature crowds her mind like the heavy, obsolete furniture of her grandmother’s home. She can be forgiven for mentioning writers and literary theorists like Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida, the latter appearing as a guest lecturer in one of her own literature courses. His theories, however, fail to capture her soul, as it were, because ultimately, in the midst of death Alice is interested in life, in actuality, in knowing how a person — in this instance, her grandmother — lived on the earth, and how her history impinges on her granddaughter’s sense of identity and womanhood. Despite doubts, Alice is a self-assured and independent-minded woman who is deliciously indifferent to Derrida: “[h]e had a nice smile, as if to say this was all a joke he was playing on us, or on himself, or on the history of philosophy. What I couldn’t understand is how everyone took it seriously.”
Somewhat humiliated by a student who thinks the class pointless and fabricates memories to complete an assignment, which was supposed to be writing about a personal experience, Alice still remains committed to story, to the inseparable relationship between art and truth, fiction and reality. She attends classes, struggles to find a comfort zone in the apartment she shares for a time with a fellow student, deals with finances, a lover, professors, relatives, funerals, weddings, and the streets of New York. Perhaps living in the East Village in the 90s, already losing its edginess and/or unsavoury associations, on the cusp of gentrification, is the appropriate place for a young intellectual woman piecing together a sense of self as well as a sense of place.
She befriends an eleven-year-old, precocious girl, Persephone, who lives in the same building and whose mother is inattentive and scattered, a wannabe artist or writer or counter-cultural person of some sort, and not overly particular about her male friends. I don’t need to delve into the meaning of Persephone, but how neatly the story of the classical lady, who spends half her life underground shadows, melds with my thoughts of the dead beneath Washington Square, or even the difficult and often dreary lives of the dispossessed camping out in Tompkins Square, just a stroll away. Freedman’s Persephone is associated with bright colours and flowers in her hair. I pretend at the moment that I am once again sitting in Washington Square with a large coffee and a salty pretzel bought from a street vendor, having walked about twenty minutes along E10th Ave from Tompkins Square, resting a while, watching like Alice the spectacle of living humanity, and catching sunlight refracted through gigantic bubbles before I resume my peregrinations through the neighbourhoods.
Freedman resorts to a much-used device: the photograph from the past, which leads to revelations. Like Persephone, Alice dips below the surface of things, searching for her grandmother Helen’s character and experiences in Poland before and during World War II, afterwards in the United States. Her grandmother’s husband, her friend Bella, the compromises and complexity of their friendships, and her grandmother’s eventual mental collapse and institutionalization. These sections of the novel are conveyed in the women’s own voices, and Alice has to deal with private worlds turned upside down. Down the rabbit hole, as we all know, Lewis’s Alice plunges to discover that preconceptions and ordinary life must necessarily shift and alter if we are to understand anything at all, and logic may not be helpful. Of course, clarity is the last thing Alice in Wonderland discovers, and I’m not sure Alice in A Joy To Be Hidden discovers it either. But the descent is more important than explanation. The journey is what matters, not the destination.
If Alice drops literary and philosophical names, she also alludes to children's books as a short hand means of revealing aspects of her inner life and biography. Growing up, she read passionately with her sister, who later for religious reasons eventually went to Galilee. The novel is built upon motifs or tropes the way classic children’s literature often is, and Freedman is abundantly clear about and adroit in her handling of children’s books to convey the ongoing relevance of…. dare I say… archetypes: the mysterious ring, the singular child at odds with the world, the magical wardrobe, the photograph, the Westward Ho direction of a road trip in her grandfather’s Cadillac to escape or to begin anew. As she confesses, her compulsive reading with her sister displeases their mother:
She hated our lethargy … not realizing that for my sister and me, until we became teenagers, reading was everything. If we lay on the couch we attracted too much attention, so we would retreat to our room, and if we were lucky, she would forget about us for a few hours as we vanished into Avonlea or Oz or Wonderland.
I never read any of these books when I was a child, nor the other works Alice mentions, like the Eloise series written by Kay Thompson about an inquisitive girl who turns the Park Plaza Hotel into her playground, without adult supervision (the presence of a nanny notwithstanding). Alice's grandmother had a closet wherein she hung fur coats, which reminds Alice of C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, another story of children on their own in a magical kingdom, learning how to chart a proper moral course in a fantasy world falling prey to the forces of evil. I read the Narnia novels first as an adult and found them Sunday-schoolish and sometimes treacly, like melted Turkish delight, with a whiff of the “good godly” books seventeenth century Puritans allowed their young to read, depicting child martyrs and preaching the ultimate moral: be fearful of the Lord or be damned. As a child, perhaps I would have been enchanted. For Alice, however, like Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Narnia says something about the imaginative struggle in our heroine's mind and her yearning to expose hidden facts or truths. More fundamentally, children’s books teach Alice the art of narrative.
As a last word, like her writing in her excellent first novel, Arabic for Beginners, which I thoroughly enjoyed, the assured and sharply-honed quality of Freedman’s prose and her sensitivity to details and textures kept me reading A Joy To Be Hidden to the end, with little in the way of interruption, except to eat a piece of cake and sip my tea. One of my favourite scenes in the novel occurs in the Metropolitan Museum of Art where Alice takes the curious and delightful Persephone. Like literature, painting also reveals much about our heroine’s ideas and feeling, none more so than Courbet’s canvas, Woman With a Parrot. As she describes the painting, Freedman’s prose is imbued with subtle wit, honest perception, as well as a rigorous sense of integrity:
The painting depicted a nude woman, reclining like an odalisque, a white sheet draped over her thighs which called attention to her nakedness rather than concealing it. It was the kind of painting I would never look at, assuming that I already knew what it was about – the shiny dishonest lasciviousness of the academic nude. The frothy peach milkshake of a body on offer for display and consumption. But now that I looked, it struck me that this painting was slippery and strange. The woman was flung back on the bed, her pose sloppy, and there was a pile of clothes on the floor, as if she had disrobed in a hurry. In contrast to her general languid collapse, one arm was held up, and a brightly coloured parrot was feasting on her outstretched fingers. Even stranger, her auburn hair uncoiled and spilled over the bottom of the painting, lively as a basket of eels, certainly more vivid than the bare, inert, almost boneless body.
Alice’s perceptive eye notes the details in Courbet’s painting and she describes them in language that reveals not only artistic technique, but also demonstrates the profound difference between herself as a thinking and acting woman, a woman on a quest, if you will, and the corpse-life passivity of Courbet’s nude. Whether it’s the art in New York’s Metropolitan Museum, or the sights and textures of the city itself, or the people she meets, this acute ability to see significant details enriches and enlivens A Joy To Be Hidden.
Kenneth Radu has published fiction, non-fiction and poetry. A two-time recipient of the Quebec Writers' Federation award for English-language fiction, his latest book is Net Worth released by DC Books Canada. He has recently completed the manuscript of a new book of linked stories.
PHOTO: Joshua Radu