(Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2013)
What are The Sad Passions?
Something about the cover struck me as kindred at first sight. A Francesca Woodman photograph of a woman hanging by her fingers in a doorway, face covered in hair. The scene is incipient, set for a suicide. I know that place, I thought, that dark uncomfortable place. Strung out. Hopeless. Hung. Curious, I read the description of the book: Mother. Undiagnosed mental illness.
It was a familiar thought, a familiar street. My own mother’s anxiety playing out on highways, doors on a moving car swinging open. What my siblings and I shouldn’t have seen. Our mother’s battle bred into us. A woman we loved, a woman we still love, hurting herself for no discernable reason—no clear motive to justify the extremity. And here I was with this book. Would I be able to see my childhood in the hands of this fiction? Can stories be substituted for the security of rationalization—can fiction do what rationalization can’t?
Misery has a nucleus, a center of commerce, a little hub with busy organisms that want to make things work. Imagine a human behind the envelope and you have what Veronica Gonzales Peña calls the sad passions, a phrase adopted from Gilles Deleuze on Spinoza: born from the power of an external body that has opposed our own, “…bringing about a subtraction or a fixation.” Peña borrows the phrase and turns it into a title for a novel about a mother with an unnamed psychosis and the four daughters who grow up in her comings and goings—in the abuse of her presence and the chaos of her absence.
Part of what makes this novel so vivid is its extremes of emotional experience. Told from six intimate perspectives (the mother herself, her four daughters and a family friend), second-born Julia insists, “It’s not to say that things were always terrible. They weren’t. Most of the time they weren’t and I was happy, lots of people around me, aunts and cousins and friends, my grandmother”. The sisters’ personalities are classified—Rocio, the shy and beautiful; Julia, the sensitive and curious; Marta, the aggressive and tawdry; Sandra, the brilliant and prophetic. Each daughter manages her sadness with different combinations of men, art, marriage, and destruction. Each has a bold opinion about her circumstances, about her sisters. We know the limits of each character as they make sense of the past, and wisdom abounds regardless.
In a glimpse from childhood, Julia tells about her mother, “We didn’t know what she was in those days . . . In fact, I don’t think anyone around me knew what she was, who she was, what is was she was capable of.” The same Julia, fathered by a friend of her mother’s husband, is later sent away from home in Mexico City to live with relatives in the United States. The object of her mother’s harshest physical abuse, Julia escapes—to the mixed grief and jealousy of her sisters—and becomes a family ghost: the missing sister, the presence who shares their pain from a distance.
Claudia, the mother, leaves her children shivering in bathtubs. Disappears for days. Slaps, screams, flies off every handle of sanity. When her daughters are adults, she has love affairs with young men their age, friends of their boyfriends. Her condition is unknown but her danger is understood. Her husband, a drifter with a bad reputation, comes in and out of her life. Impregnating her with children before departing again. Bringing her to electroshock therapy during a psychotic episode and then abandoning her to drool on a doorstep.
“The sad passions always amount to impotence,” writes Deleuze in the epigraph. But the impotence isn’t always inherited. As Rocio, the oldest sister, sits on the beach with her young daughter who has been nurtured and loved into wholeness, she notices that her child, “did not seem to be controlled by any of the sad passions.”
The observation comforts her, and similar senses of redemption come to most of the characters. But ultimately, they will never fully escape the violence inside of them, the contradictions of their upbringing, the loneliness they suffered together as girls who needed something they could not give each other. Rocio will always have the urge to crawl into her husband’s lap and cry like a baby, aware of what she lacks as a mother.
More of Francesca Woodman’s pictures are included at the end in a section narrated by Julia. Present only there and on the front cover, Woodman’s photographs are a source of solace in their physicality, bookends for balance in the powerful storm that Peña has created. Pictures of three naked women, images of Woodman held in front of their faces. One of Woodman in a cemetery, her breasts exposed through the opening of a tombstone. Identity and intent are questioned. Julia sees herself and her sisters in the naked bodies but decides it doesn’t matter. What strikes her is the force of Woodman’s art—the brilliance and madness, the sadness. “But we know it is a deep struggle that, the taking control of the outlying voices, the reining them in, and making of them something like art,” . There, perhaps, Julia finds hope.
I keep coming back to the image of a nucleus because there’s something about the center of things—the town square, the inner inner function—that Peña sets in motion with this novel. Maybe the story itself is an engine, the pages merely cables attached to a reader’s heart. The electricity is a current of water, bounding over the largest of stones, nourishing a dry pathway with something it didn’t think it would see again. Peña presents solace without resolution, life without a box. Destruction without reason. The characters are still alive. That’s what we know.
The Sad Passions is one of those living books, timeless and haunting and comforting in its dysfunction. Narrative and language move seamlessly together and create an expandable prism around the mind of a reader. Much like the characters within the nucleus of sadness, the reader is invited into a funhouse of intro- and extrospection. Peña’s voices are like hands holding shovels of experience and analysis. I was given an image for the pain inside my own heart: a steady undercurrent of grief resulting from the trauma of an unprotected childhood, debilitating confusion paired with the resilience of youth. This is how, after following these characters, I imagined the sad passions.
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Gloria Beth Amodeo‘s short fiction, reviews and interviews have appeared in Helping Orphans Worldwide (H.O.W.) Journal, Carrier Pigeon, Publisher’s Weekly, NY __________, and elsewhere. She is the first place winner of the 2011 H.OW. Journal fiction contest and an online editor for TLR.