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L.A. Review of Books: “In Hollow Heart, Di Grado elegantly and playfully thematizes the emptiness of unquestioned vessels of meaning (which is to say, words) with the story of a girl who has taken her own life before she has even really lived it.”

Date: Jul 22 2015

“YOU WHO ARE still alive can choose to believe or not to believe in me,” the narrator of Hollow Heart says coolly, “just as I can choose to believe or not to believe in you.” She disdains being studied, “like insects trapped in a jar,” even as she craves it, telling the reader directly: “You're a psychoanalyst, and this bottle with the story of my death inside it has come to you.”

Viola Di Grado’s second novel tells the story of Dorotea Giglio, who, just before the start of the novel, slits her wrists in the bathtub (the same bathtub she had been born in 25 years earlier). The rest of the plot — insofar as there is one — follows her as she revisits the people and events that led her to that point, and gets to know some of her fellow dead. Gaps are filled in: Dorotea was dumped — by text message — by her boyfriend; she was on antidepressants; her father abandoned her at birth and her mother never recovered; an aunt, Lidia, had killed herself at a young age, too, though nobody ever spoke of it; Dorotea falls in love again, with a young (living) man, and feels momentarily revived. Chronology has little purchase here; history repeats itself as past and present come together in a danse macabre for the millenials.

A great deal of fuss has been made over Di Grado's age. Now 27, she was only 23 when she wrote 70% Acrylic 30% Wool, which went on to win Italy's Premio Campiello Opera Prima, a prize that has launched the international careers of Alessandro Piperno (The Worst Intentions, 2005) and Paolo Giordano (The Solitude of Prime Numbers, 2008). Hollow Heart was published in Italy in 2013 and reached U.S. readers last month in an accomplished translation by Antony Shugaar. From the start, the press has been enthralled by Di Grado’s distinctive persona, a combination of defiant sound bites (“I don’t believe in influences”) and goth style (she is never seen without mulberry lip stain).

What is more surprising than her early success, however, is how fully she has already crafted her aesthetic. Reading the books one after the other, one notices how seamlessly they fit together, with 70% Acrylic appearing as a kind of pattern guiding the much finer lines of Hollow Heart. Both are concerned with the difficult coming of age of a female protagonist-narrator — Camelia in 70% Acrylic, and Dorotea in Hollow Heart — for whom growth is, in different ways, forestalled by death. The novels are in some ways two sides of the same cloth, inside-out versions of each other: where 70% Acrylic is set in wintry and “frigid” northern England, and builds toward death from a starting point of deep regression (itself caused by a death that precedes the narrative), Hollow Heart begins with a death and struggles to transcend it, unravelling in the “oozing” heat of southern Italy. As Dorotea, whose suicide comes just before the start of her tale, puts it (in a formulation that owes something to Sylvia Plath): “Ladies and gentlemen, don't leave: my death, underground, goes on and on and on.”

It is in the earlier novel — which charts the descent into madness of Camelia, a 20-year-old sinophile who has been orphaned by her father and neglected by her mother — that we see Di Grado pinning down themes and techniques to form the crude outlines of what, in Hollow Heart, emerges as a more refined Lacanian study of language and the unconscious. The story is a strange hodgepodge of macabre fabulism, domestic drama, and thwarted romance, held together by sardonic wit. When we encounter Camelia — who is, in a provocatively self-referential gesture, named after a flower — her development has been frozen by the betrayal and death of her father, whose body was discovered in a crashed car alongside that of a female colleague. It was he, a “tormented writer,” who had brought the family to England in the first place, and after his death, Camelia is left alone in a land whose inhabitants fail to understand her Italian accent, and indeed, anything about her. The grief of her mother Livia, meanwhile — whose name puts a Shakespearian twist on the author’s name game — is transmuted into an obsession with holes of all kinds (in upholstery, in Swiss cheese, in the damp ceiling of their squalid home), which she photographs with her Polaroid. Her preoccupation seeps into the consciousness of the next generation: “Babies too grow in a hole, and come out of one,” Camelia points out, while Dorotea knits her own creation myth around a “hole in the condom.” All these allusions twirl around the gaping hole of death.

The most pressing hole, however, is represented by the disavowal of language. Livia, rendered mute by trauma, has returned to a savage state, primitive, but paradoxically “ahead of me, on high, beyond language.” She uses a vocabulary of “looks” to communicate with her daughter, who inherits a violent aversion to the spoken word, causing her to leave “greenish dribbles in every corner of the room, dense disgorged letters of the Latin alphabet.” Bereft of mother and father tongues, what language can she use to capture her experience? “Like a gold prospector,” Camelia says, “I was panning for meaning.” Clothes, which she salvages from dumpsters and mutilates, can be “prostheses of meaning” — the uglier they are, the truer to life.

Camelia is drawn to the Chinese language, encountering in its multi-layered ideograms and subtly varying tones units of meaning as complex as reality itself: “Isn’t it absurd? I mean, depending on the tone you use, the word ‘ma’ can mean ‘mummy’ or ‘insult’ or ‘horse’ or ‘cannabis’!” She plasters the walls of her bedroom with ideograms as other teenagers would with posters of famous singers (ultimately, these idols, too, will fail her), and takes a job translating washing-machine manuals, mutilated snippets of which recur throughout the text, taking on ever-more warped resonances:

There are two possibilities at the end of the cycle:
Spin dry
No spin dry […]
There are two possibilities for ending the cycle:
Suicide
Homicide.

In Hollow Heart, Di Grado elegantly and playfully thematizes the emptiness of unquestioned vessels of meaning (which is to say, words) with the story of a girl who has taken her own life before she has even really lived it. As the “hollowed-out branches” of her vascular system shut down and the rest of her body begins its drawn-out decomposition, Dorotea’s spirit lingers — she had not reckoned on that — “like a foul residue stuck to the bottom of the pan.” The novel falls somewhere between a final testament and a secret diary, in which Dorotea charts the slow unravelling of her body alongside her soul’s ongoing quest for definition.

Letters, either unsent or un-received, to the living or to the fellow dead, punctuate her narrative, and communication — or rather, its absence — remains Di Grado’s primary antagonist. Dorotea’s paternal loss is measured in terms of her ignorance of “the words he used most frequently.” The figure of the troubled writer recurs, too, with one character drowning herself and “taking all her adjectives with her.” The central question here is: how can Dorotea define herself in the present when language can only conceive of her in the past? Therein lies “the inherent racism of the human language.” “‘Remain’ is the key word, if words could still open doors,” she says elsewhere. “I write ‘remain’ in italics […] Italics are an alarm. They say: Be careful […] this is a word that’s not like other words.” (There is an additional twist: “since I died I’ve forgotten how to read… ” — it’s the kind of nightmarish detail perhaps only a lover of literature could think to add.) And so: “Never again words. Silence,” she says.

And yet words creep to the surface — as Camelia says in 70% Acrylic, words “are herd animals, they’re never alone” — except now they are transformed by their passage to the other side. In this, the narrator finds both pain — “Now that the living can no longer hear us, our words remain inside us, raw and misshapen, like steaks gone bad” — and pleasure — “We turn them over on our tongues, tirelessly, our carrion-words, until we finally make puns of them.” While there is solace in polyphony, it signals progress toward the high arts — poetry and music — as much as regression to the mellifluous babbling of a child.

Regardless, the present marches on, the narrator’s syntactical control seeming to slacken as her jaw, six feet under, is broken down by worms:

[T]here are still jellyfish, weeks, religions, city buses and post offices, concert tickets, clothes hangers, powdered chocolate, love letters, coffee umbrellas monkeys onionskin paper, sunglasses, elevators and weddings and hail, forks, store-windows mannequins and real people, people and clothing, wool socks, dogs and hospitals, doors, door handles, boots and pillows, glass, leather, plastic, blood, cartilage, gums.

Di Grado has said that she wants her writing to reacquaint the reader with death, and here, she has Dorotea spell it out: “I’m invisible: my body is taboo.” By taking a corpse — both supernatural and utterly urbane — as her protagonist, the author seeks to rehabilitate her subject; Dorotea embodies the symbiosis of life and death, her existence being a constant and visible negotiation between past and present, memory and creation. “It’s the death of billions of cells that make us individuals. All cells die that fail to find around themselves the molecular conditions necessary to repress their own self-destruction, and it is their death that sculpts our shape.”

And there is no end to it. Di Grado, ventriloquizing Dorotea, explores this notion at length: “When they’re alive, people are so free that they need boundaries. Both instinctively and culturally they identify boundaries with death […] They need that wall […] No one has the courage to imagine it doesn’t exist.” Such philosophizing is run though with pop references, including Sinéad O'Connor (who attempts suicide) and Amy Winehouse (who succeeds, and performs a literally haunting rendition of “Back to Black”), as well as a wealth of brand names, from Geox to Lacoste to YouTube. Timeless concerns are articulated within and bounded by our contemporary era.

Perhaps more smoothly than 70% Acrylic, Hollow Heart fits into a larger and increasingly unfashionable strand of women’s writing. “My pain is collective,” Dorotea says. “My pain is my mother’s pain, and the pain of her mother […] and the chain goes on without an articulation, without a break.” Di Grado herself belongs to a long line of interlinked writers, past and present, whose thoughts she spools and reworks: threads are taken from Amélie Nothomb (particularly in 70% Acrylic) and the écriture féminine of Hélène Cixous and her contemporaries, but also from Rainer Maria Rilke and Friedrich Nietzsche. There is a certain circularity to her novels, in which all paths inevitably begin from and lead to holes, from cradle to grave. It’s a typically wry device which, in a way, turns the entire novel into a figurative void: by tracing a circle, we cut out a hole into which we might toss our own theories, listening for them to hit bottom in the hope that something true echoes back up to us.

But it is a reference to Violet Trefusis that, perhaps, lingers longest after reading these dazzling and original patchworks of linguistic freewheeling, emotional exposure and philosophical enquiry: “Be wicked, be brave, be drunk, be reckless, be dissolute, be despotic, be an anarchist, be a religious fanatic, be a suffragette, be anything you like, but for pity’s sake be it to the top of your bent.