Thursday, August 18, 2016

Review of "Connected Underneath" - a modern Jean Valjean & Cosette tale

Not long ago I interviewed Linda Legters, a creative writing instructor and author of a highly literary psychological thriller Connected Underneath. It is published by a press that specializes in GLBT fiction, although I must say, that element is not very prominent in the novel. It's not a piece of GLBT advocacy per se. The focus is on mystic/cosmic ties that connect the inhabitants of a sleepy small town in upstate NY.

Madena, upstate New York. Like any other small town, everybody keeps an eye on everybody else's business without recognizing the secrets that connect them. The wheelchair-bound Celeste conjures up lives from what she sees and thinks she sees while peering through binoculars from her kitchen fan vent. Fifteen-year old Persephone trades sex for tattoo sessions that get her high and help her forget her girlfriend doesn't love her. Theo was the high-school bad boy who couldn't have the respectable girl he adored from afar, but now, sitting behind the counter of the last video store in town, worries wretchedly about the restless daughter he never understood. Natalie, trying to grasp the last shreds of respectability, would do anything to forget the baby she gave up long ago, including betray her husband and son. Celeste, longing to connect, combines truth with fantasy, intervenes and interferes, finally understanding that things have gone terribly wrong and that she stands at the heart of disaster.Connected Underneath is a lyrical, scalpel-keen dissection of the ties that bind and of those that dissolve.

My thoughts:
This highly literary and complex novel is accessible to general audiences, but those readers with a solid foundation in the classics, especially William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf and Victor Hugo will get so much more out of it. Despite being less than 150 pages, this novel is not an easy-breezy read. You have to be able to digest the long sentences, follow the shifts in point of view and third versus first person narrative. There are many references to ancient Greek mythology and some creative usage of archetypes. What blew me away is the dichotomy of the inner voice versus spoken voice. The characters engage in lengthy, eloquent internal monologues, and when they open their mouths in real life, short, choppy sentences come out. That reminds us that people can be crude and rough and unbending on the outside and be very vulnerable and conflicted on the inside.

Now, I am not someone who absolutely needs a hero to root for in order to enjoy a work of fiction. I do not need to latch onto that nipple of fake positive energy. In fact, I am much more likely to attach myself to a grotesque character, and track his/her downfall. Theo and Persephone "Seph" are a father-daughter team that in a strange way remind me of Jean Valjean and Cosette. I must be in the .001% of the population who did not sympathize with that duo from "Les Miserables". That's the kind of heartless monster I am. But that's the beside the point. Just like Jean Valjean, Theo is an outcast - self-loathing, socially awkward and sexually repressed, looking towards his adopted daughter as an opportunity for redemption. And that's a really risky thing to do, putting your spiritual redemption into the hands of another person, especially a troubled teenage girl.

Which brings me to the character of Seph. I will not go as far as criticizing the author for creating an over-the-top character, but sometimes Seph comes across as a composite character instead of a credible, tangible person. It's almost as if the author had taken part in a contest: let's see who can create a most dysfunctional teenage female character. Let's see how much black hair dye and eyeliner we can slap onto her. Let's cover her up in tattoos. Let's make her addicted to pain and cutting. Let's make her a lesbian, but one who is willing to have sex with her adult male tattoo artist, which also puts her into the child prostitute category. I guess, there is a reason for that. Underneath all those dysfunctions and alterations, there is a human being that has a potential for being balanced and functional, who is capable of building healthy human relationships. We see a glimpse of that person. Unfortunately, Seph discovers that a little too late. She cannot find her real self underneath all that ink and scar tissue.

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