Rod was my first grad school mentor at the Antioch Los Angeles MFA program. At the first residency, his seminar had us reading Flann O’Brien’s The Third Policeman, and taking a field trip to the Museum Jurassic Technology. Immediately, I knew that Rod’s aesthetic was complicated and hypnotic, not unlike the MJT’s cabinet of curiosities. A History of Hands has a similar kind of curiosity about it…it’s a fully realized world, familiar, but also skewed enough to accumulate into a question rather than an answer.
Here’s the novel’s description from the University of Massachusetts Press website:
“This powerful novel begins with the ambiguities of illness and moves on to explore both the reasonable and the absurd actions of those who suffer and those who exploit suffering. The setting is a failed farm on the Central California coast during a time of rural isolation and decline. Virge, the protagonist, is an awkwardly introspective young man living with his parents, suffering from lingering effects of an accidental childhood poisoning, including a lack of coordination and the possibility of mental weakness. Within the first few pages, Virge trips, falls, and finds that his hands have become paralyzed—a potential disaster for someone unable to afford a doctor’s visit.
Soon, however, an elderly and possibly criminal doctor, offering free therapy, moves in, much to the dismay of bedridden Virge. While the physician endeavors to restore the patient’s hands with a series of highly suspect injections, Virge recovers his sense of autonomy and an urge to escape the suffocating domestic circumstances that have perhaps caused his illnesses in the first place.
A History of Hands is a novel that invites the reader into a richly and eccentrically detailed world where fevered imaginations and dark comedy prevail, but where the determination to escape the ambiguities of illness leads to the equal ambiguities of health and freedom.”
Lately when I read, I just want to be steeped in the book, in the life of the words (story and sentences/lines). While here on the blog I always feel some self-imposed responsibility to write a mini-review, that impulse (“I must say something all-encompassing and salient!”) often stops me from writing anything. And I just want to crow about this book. So I’ve been collecting passages that fill me with wonder. Here’s one from A History of Hands.
I think you don’t really need context (though you should read the whole book!), so for now, just sit back and enjoy.
From p. 154, A History of Hands, by Rod Val Moore:
“And then, because nobody makes a move, Almy visibly relaxes, and, after taking a tiny sip from Stuart’s flask, opens up, and talks and talks, and tells a story of her own, one Virge has never heard before. It’s all about how she used to come to the farm as a child when her grandparents owned it, and how she was their guest, not to mention their darling, and their pearl of great price. How every day she was allowed to go out riding, because of course they had horses then, everyone in the world had dozens of horses then, and the one Grandma and Grandpa kept there for her was a gelding named Dime, and she could ride old Dime, best horse in the world, along the beach, clapping up the water into froth, his hooves nearly silent in the damp spongy sand. But then comes the sad part of the story, about how the farm failed one year in a drought, and the crops died and the horses, even Dime, had to be sold to the glue factory, and how then there wasn’t much to do at the place for years except mope around, though Almy kept coming, summer after summer, trying to recapture the good times of the past, splashing in the waves as if she were a horse, but it was never the same.
And then there’s the much sadder part about how her grandparents got to be old aged, and infirm, and finally it turned out that both them passed away on the same day, which happened to be Almy’s sixteenth birthday, dying from the same run-in with the flu, a day when it wouldn’t stop raining and they had to take both coffins to the cemetery in the downpour in the back of an open wagon, and how the two graves were so full of water by the time they got there that the coffins, when they went in, just bobbed there like wood canoes, until somebody drilled some holes in them, and they sank. And it’s interesting, she explains, how a year later, after getting married in San Grande, and moving permanently into the old house with Virge’s father, she found a box all wrapped up in gift paper in the back of a closet, a birthday present they’d hidden there just before they died, and when she opened it what did she find but an old German chocolate cake, now turned to nothing but a collapse of dust and hard candy, her name still spelled out in icing on the top, along with the vague and broken image of what might have been a horse. And she still had to wonder, was the cake supposed to mean that they were going to get her a new horse, or was it just the memory of the days when she did have a horse? Or was it a horse on the cake at all, or maybe a dog or nothing at all?”