Reading Like a Writer: SONG FOR NIGHT and Telepathy
Chris Abani's Song for Night is about a boy soldier named My Luck who is searching for his lost platoon. My Luck's vocal chords have been cut from his throat to make him mute, and his journey through war-torn land is also one through memory.
I want to look at one of those memories and the way it reinforces the journey through both land and memory by connecting brain space to space outside of the body.
It was hot up there, the zinc roof heating up quickly in the sun, my hiding place soon becoming an oven, and I had to strip naked and sip continuously on the water my mother smuggled up. The roof was peppered with rust holes and the sun dripped through in rivers of hot oil, mixing the shouts of the marauding mobs outside, the scent of earth, burning flesh, and the screams of the dying into a fire that burned me, patterning my psyche in polka dots of fear.
First, this is a great example of the use of subtext to depict emotion through setting. As we get the details of the room, we understand that we're also learning how My Luck feels. Significant details include the hiding, the heat, the naked vulnerability, and the danger. Abani signals the alignment of room and mind explicitly with the words "patterning my psyche," but the fact of it being an attic will alert most readers even earlier. The attic is the top room of the house, just as the head is the top part of the body.
But this passage works as more than subtext or metaphor. It blurs the line between inner self and outer world.
First, consider that the atmosphere is not just a way to reflect My Luck's feelings but that the room causes those feelings. The phrase "burned into me, patterning my psyche" acknowledges that relationship.
Yet the passage also toys with cause and effect by mixing what is concrete with what is less so. Upon a first reading, I'm not sure if there is actual oil on the roof, heated by the sun and pouring down on him, or if the sun merely feels like hot oil as it blazes through the holes. And, unsure of the physicality of the oil, I don't know if the burning flesh might be his own or if it's someone else's that he's smelling with the earth. Because I can interpret these images as either physical or not quite so, both versions become true in my head. The oil is both physical and metaphorical, the flesh is both his and someone else's.
Here's why I like this mixing of the physical and metaphorical. This passage frustrates my instinct to assign causation. It's not that an external event or sensation causes an internal emotion, but that all things happen to both room and mind. Memories burn and sear. The fire is simultaneously in the body, in the house, and in the mind. And because it's in three places at once, it's the same fire—uncontained—burning just as literally and fiercely in one place as another.
I also want to consider the passage in relation to the old trope of madwoman in the attic (like in Jane Eyre), which uses the idea of being stuck inside your head as a (troubling) way to comprehend mental illness. My Luck doesn't quite fit this trope. For one thing, he's hiding rather than imprisoned. And he's traumatized but not "hysterical." He's not moaning or raging or setting things on fire.
Still, I can't escape the notion of mental illness—not with him in an attic, not with the horrific trauma of his life so far. The point of the book is certainly not a PTSD diagnosis, but it's important to recognize the violence to My Luck's body and to the bodies of other characters (in the outside world) as violence to his mind, as well.
However, I think the real point of that hiding in the attic, of his mind's entrapment, is My Luck's physical inability to speak. Since his vocal chords have been cut, the boy must communicate through a crude, yet poetic, sign language. He also uses telepathy, which may or may not be imagined. But whether or not it literally works when he flashes thoughts to people inside the story, the transmitted thoughts do make it to the reader in the form of the book.
Because the narrator can't speak, there is no pretense that he is talking aloud. Instead we are directly inside My Luck's mind. And so the physical outer world becomes the same as his internal world of thoughts and feelings and memories—they're all transmitted to us the same way. Other books use the same conceit of being inside a narrator's head but generally call less attention to it. In fact, a novel always obscures the boundary between internal and external. It's just that Song For Night makes a very explicit and useful point of it.
The overlapping of interior and exterior settings can help us understand the experience of telepathy. For this boy, landscape has to become "brainscape," and the reverse. To communicate, he must put people inside his mind, and he must also put his mind outside of his head and into the bigger world.
There's a clever technique in the scene to help us feel that. We get a whole paragraph of subtext in that attic, hinting it's also a mind but not being explicit. When Abani finally says "psyche" outright, the subtext bursts into the open to become straight-up text and our suspicions are confirmed. So it feels like we have read the narrator's mind. Thus the mind's border is further blurred or problematized.
In my analysis so far, we move between mental interiority and the room itself, seeming to leapfrog what comes between the two, which is the physical body. But it's important to notice that the body is the bridge and that the sensations through which we learn of both spaces can only be understood through the body. The skin is a permeable boundary and is as much about communion as separation.
This fact is emphasized by all of the images of permeation. The sun and/as oil drip through the roof, which is both the outside world and My Luck's metaphorical skull, to burn through his skin, to finally sear his mind. Similarly, scents and sounds and water pass into My Luck's head through the holes of his nose and ears and mouth. When he strips naked, he eliminates a barrier between world and mind to present his skin, which could be taken for a different barrier except that it's so penetrable.
A Song For Night uses some incredibly sophisticated techniques to bring together the mind, the body, and the outer world—and also some simple ones. Beyond that, it makes me think about the strange and wonderful relationship of interiority and exterior landscape in fiction.
Allison Wyss' stories have appeared in [PANK] Magazine, The Southeast Review, The Golden Key, Metazen, MadHat (Mad Hatters’ Review), The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.