Families at War

Review by Victor

D.H. Melhem, Stigma & The Cave: Two Novels (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2007).

Few stories evoke the personal anguish and tragedy that would accompany the end of the world as do D.H. Melhem’s novellas, Stigma and The Cave, the second and third parts of her Patrimonies trilogy published this past year in a single volume. In Stigma, we find a husband and wife reliving their lives from solitary confinement within a fascist work camp, awaiting execution for their attempted escape. The Cave follows a family, their friends and assorted strangers as they struggle with each other for shelter during the first stages of a nuclear war. If each scenario seems as if it could have been introduced by Rod Serling, there is nothing campy about these stories, and the darkness they explore is both challenging and imaginatively rendered.

Melhem’s careful use of first-person narration is what makes her fiction so powerful. Both Stigma and The Cave are written from the perspectives of the stories’ characters, and there is not an unbelievable or incoherent voice among them. The emotions and reflections of her characters are delivered in unusually vivid terms, and the plots cleanly unfold in surprising ways. The nightmarish events take shape for us through her character’s reactions to them, and if this leaves us with a decidedly subjective picture of their worlds, the snapshots we are given are the more potent for it. These stories do have one thing in common with Serling’s Twilight Zone, which is a focus on how everyday people deal with incomprehensible situations. And, as with Serling’s program, this makes the social and political analysis of Melhem’s fiction accessible and provocative at the same time.

These are no dry treatises on politics. The horror in each story has less to do with its social or political context and more with the trauma visited on the characters by dramatic political upheaval. Certainly, in both novels, there is plenty to fear from the politics that are described. Melhem does an excellent job of evoking an authoritarian social order through the most minute details, from the presidential television broadcast in The Cave that announces a nuclear war has begun, to the bureaucratic sadism of the processing of new workers in Stigma, who are separated from their spouses and housed in cells with new mates for the duration of their time in the factory.

In fact, Melhem’s attention to the ways the family can be torn apart by these circumstances is particularly astute, and both stories are moving in this respect, even if they seem overwrought in the retelling. In Stigma the eldest son, Michael, is so attracted by the idea of serving the state that he is able to execute Joseph, his father, whose escape attempt has marked him as a traitor. Toward the end of the story, we see Michael’s version of the execution in a letter to his younger brother, and its lack of detail is shocking. He writes, “It was very hard for me I’m not a stone but I did my duty [sic] . . .  Hail to our country” (98). In one of the most striking passages of either work, we see Joseph’s execution through the eyes of his wife Serafina, who watches from the isolation of her cell.

As The Cave begins, we are introduced to a small-time thug, Burns, and then Flora (who may be Serafina’s granddaughter -- we never know for sure). Though unconnected, Melhem shifts between their perspectives to illuminate their typical evenings -- Burns and his friend as they taunt a traveling preacher, and Flora as she listlessly prepares dinner. The story turns as the small town descends into all-out war once the news of the nuclear attack is heard. Television and radio sets only broadcast static after the presidential announcement of war, and though there are reports of “the west coast” in flames, we never see any bombs fall in the town. Yet the impact on the characters is the same as if they had. In order to take shelter in the story’s eponymous town cave, Burns and his friend, Duke, kill the guard at its mouth. And though they only recently met them, the two invite Flora’s extended family inside the cave to take shelter with them. Once there, a set of circumstances results in Flora’s sister Mary being forced at gunpoint to leave one child outside, only to have her other child turn against her with Duke, the man who made her choose between them. Mary then sees Flora killed when she attempts to seduce Burns to steal his gun. A few minutes later, everyone in the cave is killed when a grenade is thrown against its door from outside, causing the ceiling to fall in. Brothers of the dead guard have found out that Burns and Duke killed him, and the grenade they toss is their vengeance. The final commentary on this tragedy comes from the (recently-taunted and despairing) preacher who thinks to himself amid the dead and wounded, “Might it not all be simple, coming down to this: one person cleaning the wounds of another? And beyond the moment, the mercy of forgiveness, of not inflicting any wounds at all” (182). It’s as close as Melhem comes to articulating a response to the brutality she details. Though these stories are composed from a moral standpoint, they do not moralize. She leaves the reader to sort through the import of the complex chains of relations and events, and that space is welcome after the intense experience of reading the stories themselves.

Though each narrative doesn’t lack for violence and a speedy plot, we spend most of our time thinking along with Melhem’s characters as they reflect on their lives. This gives Stigma and The Cave their human center. Though ostensibly about life under fascism, these works are just as concerned with the history of personal relationships. Flora, the wife in The Cave, is unfulfilled in her marriage, but represses her feelings toward her husband: “Once in awhile I wondered whether he felt a little short-changed too, but I’d turn away quickly from that one” (113). Though she loves him to an extent, the story of their family’s search for shelter is wrapped up with the story of her attraction to the man who will eventually kill her. It remains ambiguous in the end whether she decides to seduce him because she thinks she can, or because she wants to. Similarly, though Serafina is deeply in love with her husband, part of Stigma’s tragedy is that only in the degrading confines of the work camp does she feel secure enough to confront her own desire for more from life than the role of serving the men in her family. “I kept reviewing them like a catechism: Poppa [her husband], Michael, Charles. People were the answer, weren’t they? I looked outside myself and there you all were. Sometimes I wondered what was inside, there just for me” (51).

Parenthood no less than sexual relations vexes the characters of these stories. The husband and wife in Stigma, Joseph and Serafina, spend as much time poring over their perceived failures as parents as they do their failures to each other, and both wonder what they did or didn’t do to their elder son to make him into a willing tool of the state. Melhem hints that the wife’s overbearing father-in-law played a role there, by pulling her away from her role as mother so she can be the family’s maid. This is drawn to exaggeration when at one point he angrily demands she cook dinner for him and Joseph rather than breastfeed her son. Though it sounds maudlin, the conversations and emotional tone of the scene are understated, and Melhem avoids neat explanations. As Michael’s father thinks back from his prison cell, he recalls that as an infant Michael “never” seemed “to stop crying,” and never let his father hold him (5).

Though certainly the chauvinism and misogyny of these worlds plays a major role in enabling the horrors we encounter, Melhem has much more at work than a facile analysis of gender relations. The odd moments of sexual pleasure and longing that surface throughout both stories are genuinely troubling in the way they complicate and deepen her characters’ sense of agency, and this adds legitimacy to their plight. Even in the midst of nightmarish conditions, characters never become two-dimensional or predictable. In fact, human fallibility, desire, and pleasure remain at the foreground of these two stories, making them as much an investigation of how life can go on in the face of unmitigated horror as an unflinchingly imaginative rendition of human misery. The tryst between the gunman and the daughter in The Cave, or between Joseph and his cellmate in Stigma, occur in ways and at times that seem implausible or even frightening. Yet when Melhem narrates them, they seem all too real and understandable.

These stories are certainly speculative, but Melhem’s fiction is profoundly personal, and this is one of its greatest strengths. Her subjects live under fascism or war, but the shifting perspectives she employs address the workings of the social whole in oblique ways. We get only incomplete information, unreliable signs of a world beyond the characters’ immediate reality, but that is enough to get us to think about the historical forces which set the stage for those characters. This tension between history and its subjects permeates these stories, making them provocative and worth second and third readings. What is unsaid or only hinted at becomes powerfully evocative, and the impact is unquestionable.

Review by Victor Cohen Los Angeles victor.cohen37@gmail.com