Lucia by Alex Pheby

Galley Beggar Press, 356 pp, June 2018

Galley Beggar Press, 356 pp, June 2018

In Lucia, Alex Pheby is angry. The novel presents a hypothetical history of Lucia Joyce, James Joyce’s daughter, who was institutionalized in a psychic ward in 1951 until her death three decades later in 1982. All her correspondence was destroyed, so relatively little is known of her today, but the question remains: why was her voice silenced by the Joyce estate? Pheby offers a literary middle finger to the responsible parties, knowingly playing with fire, no pun intended, as he introduces various pernicious persons and scenes into Lucia’s life in order to play with the idea that Lucia’s letters contained material too harmful for her father’s reputation. After a disturbing scene where Lucia’s brother Giorgio torments a pet in order to silence Lucia from revealing the siblings’ incestual relations, the narrator – a snarky puppeteer commenting on what’s happening onstage in a rather cold, analytical manner – remarks:

If there are those of you reading this who know Giorgio, you might say that this never happened. But how do you know? How does one ever know what it is that occurs outside the range of one’s experience? You may not know that it did happen, but that is not the same as knowing that it did not happen. Perhaps if there were documentary evidence; but who keeps such records? Is it even possible to keep evidence of things that might happen that someone wishes to keep secret? If one has secrets, and then burns the evidence of those secrets on a pyre, one invites speculation, and speculation is infinite in a way that the truth is not. Speculation is limited only by the sick imaginations of those who speculate, where truth is not. Why shouldn’t Giorgio have tortured Lucia’s rabbit to prevent her from speaking? All things that are possible are, in the absence of facts that have been destroyed that might have proved them incorrect, equally correct.

A series of uncomfortable events follow, as Pheby fills the gaps of Lucia’s personal history. For instance, in the psychic ward, she is forced into and kept in near-boiling water. (Could be true, since hydrotherapy is a historical treatment.) Interspersed with this narrative, which already incorporates multiple characters from Lucia’s life in different times periods, Pheby presents the novel’s quirkiest feature: a spread with hieroglyphics running in the bottom of both pages, and, on the left-hand page, a story is told of two archeologists discovering a tomb, and on the right-hand page appears excerpts from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, depicting the ritualistic process of mummification. These obviously confuse the reader in the beginning, but, as these pages recur in even intervals and the story of the archeologists develops, it is easier to see their connection to the main narrative.

So much is packed into Lucia that going through it all would entail an academic paper or two. (That would probably kill much of the fun of simply immersing yourself in the story, too.) I can only recommend reading other people’s comprehensive reviews of the novel, and to proceed by mentioning some of the elements that caught my attention in this hugely allusive novel. For example, there are intrusive gnats, tapeworms, cocoons, and spiders on the boundaries of humans and non-human animals:

If one’s dreams were affected by the residence in the part of the brain responsible for the generation of dreamscapes of a tapeworm, or a culture of tapeworms, then would one dream of tapeworms, or dream as a tapeworm dreams? Or would the tapeworm dream as a man dreams?

Further, there any scenes and details that resonate with the father’s oeuvre in one way or another, most explicitly in the references to the Book of the Dead, to which he alludes in Finnegans Wake over a hundred times. Then, there’s the snow falling upon the living and the dead, evoking the famous ending of his short story “The Dead” which is also set during Christmas time:

Once outside she is cold, but there is still a beauty in the falling of snow. She appreciates the way it lies on the streets and covers up the shite that covers up the mud that covers up the shite that she usually walks over. She has seen biscuit tins in the past, like we all have, and she has seen Father Christmas and his elves, like we all have, and she knows how closely this kind of precipitation is related to the giving of gifts and the being of good cheer, jingle bells, jingle bells, jingle all the way. Even if she has rarely experienced it, there is in her no less, probably more, appreciation of the wonder of it all.

One could also argue that Pheby’s matter-of-fact prose is a nod toward the Ithaca episode of Ulysses, which is built around the idea of factual accuracy: interrogative sentences followed by detailed answers. This theory might be a stretch, especially since I have no previous experience of Pheby’s writing, but, considering all the other allusions to the author, it wouldn’t surprise if the style was deliberately put to use.

Above all, Lucia deals with the titular character’s limited agency, the pain of which is put into metaphoric use throughout the novel. Let’s look at one more passage to demonstrate it, or just to appreciate the language, which takes some time to get used to. It can at times be a bit disjointed, but it has its rough beauty:

Move like a wooden soldier, articulate like wood, drill like the others. Not so far from the orders given to living soldiers: be as nothing except what you are ordered to be. Do not exercise judgement in anything. Train in the manners and modes of your trade and execute them by reflex when prompted. Spasm as muscle spasms when an electrical impulse is received. Wear the uniform, exercise the frame into its correct shape. Place your face behind your mask, your head beneath the helmet, hoist the bayonet to your shoulder and learn to relish the abandonment of individuality as a pack wolf bitch learns subservience from the most vicious dog. Invisible the self, cover those brittle hands with white gloves, relineate that jaw with the face straps, cover the gradual erosion of the teeth.

Grisly in subject matter, gorgeous in language, and distinctive in execution, Lucia is arguably among the best of this year’s experimental novels, sharing traits with Murmur by Will Eaves and The Cemetery in Barnes by Gabriel Josipovici. A challenging but ultimately rewarding read.