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Review: ‘Small Backs of Children’ by Lidia Yuknavitch

The Small Backs of Children

By Lidia Yuknavitch


224 pages, $24.95

By Ed Taylor

I recently heard an interview with an author whose thesis was that although art is again enjoying an investment bubble (a Picasso set a new auction record by selling for $179.4 million in May) and museum attendance is surfing a popularity wave, art itself is basically irrelevant to the general culture.

Lidia Yuknavitch, in her fierce, cyclonic novel “The Small Backs of Children,” offers a punch in the face to the idea of art’s irrelevance. The punch is strong enough to draw blood, which the author might welcome, for her book is full of blood – as art and as life and as witness and testimony and medium and sign and nourishment and decoration and evidence.

This is a wild and beautiful novel about women and what men can do to them and private and public violence and love and art and artists, one in which, far from being irrelevant, art and blood are what literally make life possible when everything else, from government to God, are destroyed or absent.

Oh yeah, Yuknavitch – previously best known for “Dora, A Headcase,” a novelistic retelling of Freud’s famous case study from Dora’s point of view – has a point of view and a fragmented and fractured visionary elegance in her poetic, allusive punk-infused voice. She grabs readers by the throats and immerses them in an intense, wrenching fictive world, but lets them up for air through careful structuring and pacing.

However, make no mistake: this is not “Eat Pray Love” or “Bossy Pants.” This is war, on sexual violence, on war itself, on sentimentality, on platitudes, on easy listening and mindless living. There’s an electric main vein running down the center of this book and if you hold on, you’ll feel charged and buzzing – and alive.

Because that’s really it – this is a novel about being alive and what it takes to stay alive. Beyond that, it’s centered around the meanings and reality of being female and male and about art. It’s about the interpenetration of human and animal and plant and the moon and violence and polysexuality and geopolitics and America and Eastern Europe and history and family and – um, lots of stuff.

“The Small Backs of Children” takes its title from the mouth of the central character, The Writer, as a 7-year-old, performing “Romeo and Juliet” with her 16-year-old brother in a chaste private ritual they enacted periodically at the brother’s direction. She improvised a line: “ ‘Pity the small backs of children,’ he heard her saying. ‘They carry death for us the second they are born.’ ‘That’s not your line,’ he said. ‘But it is,’ she’d said. ‘My line.’ ”

The brother grows up to be The Playwright, one of the group of friends and lovers that are the center of this story: The Writer, who’s writing the story that’s being told; The Filmmaker, the writer’s primal current husband; The Painter, the Writer’s abusive megalomaniacal first husband, who shot her; The Poet, a sadomasochistic bisexual woman and minor international literary figure; The Performance Artist, a woman 10 years younger than the others who’s a secret current lover of The Painter; and The Photographer, a female photojournalist whose work is the perturbation that sets things in motion.

The novel is divided into four parts, and each part contains short named chapters, using standard prose formats but also including script format, poetry and double-column dueling voices. Then Yuknavitch and The Writer (whose original name she reveals, before her ancestors scraped through the abrasive American immigration process, was Juknevicius) offer “The End” in five versions, followed by a final “real” coda.

The Photojournalist, in the heat of an Eastern European combat zone in one of the interminable hot spots that have roiled that region since the turn of the last century, snaps a photo of a young girl in the instant a bomb explosion destroys her family but not her. The photo goes viral, mesmerizes the world, wins the photographer the profession’s highest award. The girl, meanwhile, is spun into all-too-human horror after she disappears into woods following the explosion.

At the same time, the writer is giving birth to a stillborn daughter.

The writer and photographer have a bitter fight over the photo, the writer being unable to understand how the photographer could not help the girl, regardless of the practical difficulty or the professional inappropriateness of getting involved.

The writer slips into a mysterious vegetative state after the fight and is hospitalized, with her condition worsening by the day and no answer available for why. The friends gather at the hospital, and the poet decides that the only thing that might revive the writer is to find the girl in the photo and bring her to America.

And they proceed to do that.

The story is told mostly in third person, but the writer’s sections are in first person, which eventually merges with the first person of the young girl in the photo, as the writer’s unconscious mingles mysteriously with the life of the girl – who, as soon as she reached a place where no one was raping or otherwise abusing her, began to make art, painting on boards from abandoned buildings.

Yuknavitch puts us in the consciousnesses of each of the main characters, male and female, adult and child, along the way, asking “How does anyone move through humans without killing them, or themselves?” Stuff happens in the worlds of each of the characters, and there is cruelty, violence, eroticism, ecstatic vision, transcendence, speed, pain, beauty, spirituality and art at every step along the way. The top story of the fall and rise of the writer, and of the girl, reaches a conclusion, and along the way the texture and lived details of the journey are rendered in a fearless poetry that goes wherever the story requires, no matter how uncomfortable.

This is a brave, bardic book showing that neither the novel, nor art, is dead, or irrelevant.

Ed Taylor is a frequent News contributing reviewer and the author of the novel “Theo.”