Down to a Sunless Sea By Mathias B. Freese
In her introduction, Jane Holt warns that the reader about to peruse Freese’s work must have empathy. In taking this approach, she indicates, the reader’s experience will be both emotional and intellectual. Freese’s collection of fifteen stories, Down to a Sunless Sea, is a largely character-driven work whose subjects are sometimes objectified, often fearful and always self-aware. Freese’s background as a social worker and psychotherapist is evident at the root level—his character’s emotions (fear, especially), ideas and past are always under scrutiny and are usually the catalysts that lend intrigue to the stories. If some of the pieces seem to end abruptly after what feels like a character sketch, in the main this stems from the author’s purpose, which, according to Holt, is to illuminate. Holt writes, “The light that illuminates our ‘sunless sea’ is our ability to understand that we all wrestle with the transience of life and the desire for courage in the face of hopeless circumstances.” But then, if this is so, what is the sea but the self, one’s fears and the possibilities that life and its emotions hold? Holt indicates that this essential fear (“the darkness of being alone in the world”) is, indirectly, the “sunless sea” of Freese’s aesthetic (ix).
The title story indicates fear through the lens of a bildungsroman in miniature, and through a child’s (inherently) “schizoid lens” (7). The intense solitude of the only child Adam is unwittingly enabled by distant parents who occasionally intervene in his life to aggravate a budding dissociative state in the sense of a distancing from self that occurs in a time of youth which should be nothing less than idyllic. Tone and movement progress the story forward with a classicist feel until later; the loss of Adam’s mother when he is “twenty going on ten” regresses him into the “infantile amnesia” of childhood, wherein the fear of growing up can safely be submerged (8, 9).
“The Chatham Bear” embodies fear within the looming creature that haunts a town’s periphery, a symbol of the unknown that serves to heighten the infinitely more dangerous and fear-worthy city, where people are violently irresponsible, even more so than the bear. Fear in “For a While, Here, in this Moment,” arises from, as the title indicates, an exploration of the self in a moment, and is presented in concert with the acute awareness of existence (“…will defines itself. Life only asks that it continue [I inflict meaning]”) and the loss of a sense of self. Perhaps too self-consciously, however, the story conjoins a Freudian view with an almost Heideggerean analysis of existence within a moment—Dasein summoning Freud.
Other stories are character sketches (“I’ll Make it, I Think,” “Little Errands”), or case studies of lives that bear the indelible stamp of past experience. “Echo” is a confessionalist memoir with the resonance of a therapy session transcript. Two friends experience a separation originating in the distancing of one of the men from all others in his life. Unfortunately, his need for solitude and self-reflection is a justification that comes off sounding awkward and artificial. “Nicholas” tells the story of a rebellious youth who doesn’t see the need for education and bucks up against one of his teachers in particular—a familiar enough storyline that ultimately ends up becoming a soapbox for the main character. Like some of Freese’s other stories, it is a snapshot, a day-in-the-life-of character exercise that doesn’t move too far past this point. “Billy’s Mirrored Wall” also tends to plunge its protagonist into nostalgic self-reflection, and although the events and emotions are valid and realistic, the story simply does not progress beyond its narration.
Stories like “Alabaster” and “Unanswerable” address fear as well, but it’s a fear of a different kind. The few and precious survivors of the Holocaust find their embodiments in the old woman of “Alabaster” and the emotional legacy she leaves her daughter. Freese writes, “Both mother and daughter bore a fatigue, as if vampirically ravished,” and that “there was a quarantine about these two” (47). The Holocaust is a dark shadow that destroyed not only life and possibility, but also beauty. The old woman once, when young, shone with the alabaster presence of a Grecian statue whose arms were once graceful icons of perfection, but then, as she says, “A darkness came. It was not a fairy tale darkness. My beautiful arms were draped in shadow, and the Grecian urn shattered.” The old woman, a dishonored Venus de Milo, addresses her tale to a child too young to understand the implications—but this is where its power lies. She asks the young boy, “‘Do you know what it is to be broken, in pieces, my child?...I suppose not. How could you?’” (50). It is just this innocence that, uncomprehending, bore the dark shadow and was, too often, extinguished by it.
Freese never shies from these dark paths; he often illuminates them so the reader can see what things they contain. The boy in “Alabaster” instinctively senses the old woman to be a “heavy presence,” and in the bravery of innocence, says, “tell me why you scare me” (53, 51). This is a demand that Freese addresses in his writing—he attempts to tell us why these things scare us still, why the atrocities of the past live on so strongly in the present. It is this kind of writing that humanity needs to immortalize the stories of its victims so that their stories continue. (Freese writes more extensively on the Holocaust in his book, The iTetralogy, from which “Unanswerable” is excerpted.)
“Unanswerable” boldly asks the reader directly to “imagine a silent motion picture,” to “imagine time and event unfolding itself,” and to “remember no dialogue, only images” (114). Much like “Alabaster,” the story circumscribes an emotional death—the death of innocence. With it goes faith and trust in other human beings, and in an inherent goodness. In a moment, a child’s father breaches this boundary in a simple, uncaring act that leaves him understanding what it is to be objectified, and to “imagine what it was to die at the hands of my ‘father’” (115). The boy’s father (who, it is implied, is Nazi) has offered to teach him to swim, luring him to the water with an attractive promise then tossing him out into the water without retrieving him.
In this simple but defining act, Freese evokes the power of memory; in previous stories, memory surfaces often as self-gratifying nostalgia. Here, memory has a purpose, and it lies in the definition of the developing mind, but more importantly, goes further to become an arc of memory over humanity—as Hitler “lured” the Jews (or in most cases, forcefully captured them), toward what turned out to be death—if not physical, then emotional. The Holocaust metaphor is often so intrinsic within Freese’s writing that it sometimes finds its way in to what are, at first, seemingly unrelated events. In “Unanswerable,” once the boy’s father has him in hand and is leading him to the water, he recalls: “I believed…I was seduced. I walked toward the ‘showers’” (114).
In the defining moment where the self/psyche is shattered, a dissociation occurs. The boy tries to imagine what it would be like to be his father, to be without conscience or concern for human life. To do this, he must “assume another layer of self” (116). The dissociation that takes place within this identification is not one that can be shrugged off or forgotten so easily; it stems from an attempt to understand an emotional state so far removed from his own that to imagine it is to momentarily connect with it in the attempt to be it. This is a memory that may well be a lasting one: its influence will turn rancid, proving then that “the dead are alive in us…memory is as present as time itself” (115). The dead are those who fell victim at the hands of the father, but are also the shucked-off past selves that remain within as memories. There is power in memory where it defines identity. The child misled by his father must bear the burden of paternal mistakes.
Freese’s strongest work in the collection is “Mortise and Tenon.” Here, Freese steps off the soapbox and away from the moral lessons that too-roundly tie off some of his works. Again, the scenario depicts the influence of family on a child—here, it is a strong female character and her impressionable son, Edward. The mother, Clare, “saw him in parts” (131). As in “Unanswerable,” the child is objectified, but here, is a thing to be shaped, molded, impressed upon. Walking through an art gallery, Clare impresses her aesthetic opinions upon Edward (what does and does not constitute “good” art) who has not yet formulated his own aesthetic ideas. He feels he is under her scrutiny as well: “Edward felt in relationship to fragments, disintegrative” (131).
Feeling not yet as fully developed as the primary model in his life, Edward as a fragmentary, not yet complete being, is in a liminal state (“he lived in an interstice”) and as such, becomes aware of liminal spaces such as the gallery’s elevator shaft (132). In this state, “the spaces between became as attractive as ever” and he questions what it is “to live in-between” (132). This liminality is a stage many self-aware children experience during youth; childhood is itself an in-between state that holds its own dangers of fragmentation, especially in the search for role models to guide the thinking of a developing mind.
In identifying the space of childhood, Freese touches on many angles. But his object is not merely that of identification or the application of metaphor; it goes further to conjoin with the exploration of a moment and the questioning of being. The child is indirectly compared with a work of art (“his mother saw him in parts”), though Edward is, of course, infinitely more malleable than the finished pieces hanging around him in the gallery. There is also the question of art for art’s sake. Edward, in the gift shop with his mother, asks her for a snow globe. She refuses to buy it for him because it is “‘tacky, Edward. Very tacky…so Klimt.’” When he chooses a letter opener, she concedes that it “is in good taste. It serves a purpose.’” Where the comparison of a child with art holds, the question of art for art’s sake calls to question the difference between a utilitarian and an aesthetic mindset. Clare’s heavy imposition of her ideals upon her son resound with fascism and leave little question as to the author’s own aesthetic intent. Edward, not surprisingly, seeks structure: “frames appealed to him ever so dearly for they gave meaning, if not sustenance, to content” (133).
Freese seeks meaning and structure, or seeks to present it, through examinations of the motives that drive people’s lives. Often, he attempts this with a character sketch of someone whose self-worth and identity is tied up in past experience, and in the definition of life with one’s memories. Sometimes this exploration, in and of itself, is too static, since without the application to the world beyond the characters, a story about a troubled past stands too alone. It is when the stories move beyond themselves that something far more worthy is achieved.
Cynthia Reeser is the Editor-in-Chief and founder of Prick of the Spindle and runs an imaginary commune on an obscure island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, populated largely by green spotted elves and and the odd troll dressed like George Bush. In her spare time, she is a staff writer for a military newspaper, where she writes a weekly book review column. She also paints when the trolls become too annoying.
© 2007 prickofthespindle.com