Let’s begin boldly: The Woman Who Lost Her Soul (Bob Shacochis, 2013) is a Great 21st Century American Novel in the way something like East of Eden is a Great 20th Century American Novel. I’ve been meaning to attempt to convince other people to read it for some time – hesitating because I found it so clarifying and obligating that I’m admittedly a little self-conscious to share. But TWWLHS never got its due in terms of readership, and while daunting in thickness and scope, the novel is so painfully relevant to the world’s present set of conundrums as to merit a public love letter.
The book is divided into five portions, each with their own shaded tenor and narrator (for the record, I found the first part a struggle; this is somewhat intentional and worth perseverance). Settings include post-occupation Haiti; occupied Croatia; the ferries and basilicas of Istanbul during the Cold War; Fayetteville, inside the wire; Fairfax, on the green; the Garnet Mountains of Montana; Bosnia; the Outer Banks; Nairobi.
Plot-wise, it’s is a massively elegiac and confounding rumination on star-spangled good intentions: both barbing and hopeful, damning and redemptive, catholically critical and secularly prophetic. A stellar WaPo review (which spills more plot than I will here) properly pegs it as “a spy thriller in the sense that Moby Dick is a fishing tale”, albeit with black flags in lieu of white whales.
These trails of allegory throughout are self-aware, and sometimes self-deprecating, but remain poignant even when applied with a heavy hand. Here’s one example replicated in full, a description of the central Cold War Warrior as viewed by his eponymous daughter:
“Knowing this: shackled to his obsessions, her father could not stop no matter what, always betting on the consequences breaking his way – short term, certainly; long term, if God so deemed. Repercussions? Not to worry. He could separate people and events and missions and affairs and yet, she would eventually understand, he could not separate the bigger things in his life that sorely needed separation: patriotism and hatred, love and violence, ideology and facts, judgment and passion, intellect and emotion, duty and zealotry, hope and certainty, confidence and hubris, power and fury, God and retribution, dreams of peace and fantasies of war, one’s devils and one’s angels. The past and the future, upon which he asserted ownership. Righteousness and a moral compass that had never been galvanized to the true north.”
At other times, Shacochis tiptoes more implicitly to the modern era. He guides the narrative by projecting it onto reality: a flash of the Khobar Towers, a scant jab at presidential indiscretion, a passing reference to some guy named Bremer. These glimpses constitute a demanding but edifying game of connect-the-dots, coalescing at intervals into recognizable shapes and inducing pangs of dread.
His characterization, by the way, is consistently gorgeous. Stumbling back from Haiti, for instance: “The perfection of his imagined life culminated with a dog, yet under the circumstances he could not have the dog unless he had a woman who loved dogs, or just a woman who loved him, a yearning as distant from his reality as the moon.” And he hits notes that divulge particular familiarities (re: running off to the mountains or beach as a “cure for being too real” – “yeah? Is that like a white people disease?”).
The narrative never quite reaches the implicit climax (headily augured by the last epigraph: “oh, but the end of safety comes to us all – right where we live”) but the lessons and warnings are all about the aftershocks. In that light, rebukes transform into calls to try harder as we navigate the reverberations – to splice power from fury – and hint at paths toward redemption. This is the sort of book I would recommend to every elected official grappling with the slippery algebra of enemies and alliances, every aid worker navigating amongst least bad options, and every citizen concerned by the Gordian knot of responsibilities demanded by or requested of a hegemon.
[Bonus: I made a book playlist like a crazy person…]