The Importance of the Personal: Glenda Burgess on Jane Lazarre’s Some Place Quite Unknown


Some Place Quite Unknown, Jane Lazarre, Hamilton Stone Editions, 2008

Some Place Quite Unknown is the most recent work of fiction by the prolific poet and writer Jane Lazarre, author of Some Kind of Innocence among other works of fiction, and of note in her nonfiction, The Mother Knot, Of Loving Men, and Beyond the Whiteness of Whiteness: Memoir of a White Mother of Black Sons. Her background includes teaching creative writing at Eugene Lang College at the New School, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the Meyers Center Award for the Study of Human Rights in North America.

Some Place Quite Unknown is a tightly constructed novel that seeks to plumb the depths of personal history, its meanings and dark metaphors. The narrative opens with an omnipresent storyteller observing a woman standing in front of her mirror, aware of new and disturbing disruptions in the thread of her life and her thinking, a seeping sense of displacement somehow tied up with the fate of her mother. The unidentified heroine of Lazarre’s story whispers to a self she can only viscerally anchor to by touching her own face and witnessing the touch in her mirror – “I’m in the middle of nowhere with a huge amount of utter strangers surrounding me going ahead to some place quite unknown…” They are, she tells us, the words of her mother. And now they are her own.

More than a coming of age novel of the middle-aged soul, Lazarre’s latest work of fiction offers the diffused truths of the semi-autobiographical (c.f. author’s notes referring to letters of her mother’s credited to the character of her mother, Violet), and is distinctly flavored and framed by epigrams and quotes of Virginia Woolf’s famed paradoxical fictional heroines Clarissa Dalloway (Mrs. Dalloway) and Mrs. Ramsey (To the Lighthouse), not to mention the sometimes brutally-pained, beautiful poetry of Anne Sexton. Deliberate in its interweaving of narrative, dream, and a questing, questioning first person voice, Lazarre’s latest novel delves into the nature of the mind, adaptive amnesia, the dioramas of therapy, and the importance of personal history:

I am not crying from the real feeling, or weird vertigo of fiction. It is all happening right now, not back then or out there but right here, right now. I have imagined a story in the past more clearly than it happened in real time, and the imagining has led back to the real thing. Perhaps it is meaningless or dangerous to try to comprehend in language where certain stories began… (1. Refraction/ 8.)

The result is a quickly moving story that begins and ends in probing intimations by an unknown observer, but is voiced within the interior chapters in the heroine’s first person voice. This technique allows the reader to balance the storytelling nuances of a possibly unreliable heroine against the omnipresent, almost clinically detached observations that open and close the novel. At the novel’s conclusion, we better understand the journey of both mother and daughter, but questions of veracity are left to the reader’s own judgment, a comment in and of itself on personal narrative.

 

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Glenda Burgess is a winner of The Rupert Hughes Fiction Award, and a short story finalist for the New Century Writer Award. She has published two novels, an academic reference work, and most recently a memoir, The Geography of Love, Broadway Books, August 2008, named a Top Ten Books of 2008 by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and a finalist for the Books for a Better Life Award.

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