The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish kept me up late; I read it in a couple long sittings yesterday. I picked up three books at the North Carolina Book Festival in February (one of my prearranged exceptions for my goal of not buying books in 2020), and as much as I enjoyed the other two, this was by far the best of the three. It reads like Southern Gothic by way of Nabokov, but structured by David Mitchell. But it would be reductive to say it was just that. It is its own very disturbing thing, as unsettling as any horror novel.
The book starts out in heavy territory; two sisters, 16 year old Edith (Edie) and her younger sister Mae have moved from Louisiana to live with their estranged father, Dennis, a famous author and former Civil Rights activist) in the wake of their mother’s (Marianne) suicide attempt. The narration is fractured. Edith’s sections are first person present tense as the events happen in 1997. Mae writes in the past tense from an initially indeterminate perspective. There are interjection chapters, usually in the past tense from other characters. Interspersed throughout are letters to and from the parents, passages from their journals, interviews, transcripts of phone calls and notes from the mother’s psychiatric hospital. I’m on record saying that this is one of my favorite narrative techniques, and Apekina is a master at it. It fits the material so well. It allows the reader’s sympathies to be drawn in entirely the wrong directions then brought back with force without cheating.
It has very potent political themes. The hypocrisy of a lot of leftist white people being woke for shady reasons, without denying the importance of being politically aware. The damage that one man can have on the women around him. But, like Nabokov, the work is not some vessel for ideology. Apekina cleverly has Dennis say his books are not propaganda while his interlocutor says maybe a little of that isn’t too bad? And while there are a couple of chapters that show that Apekina has a point of view, she clearly takes the position that the art is more important. And the political points are only strengthened by that approach.
The book also raises ethical questions of how much real life should be put into a work of art. Discussion of this point will involve spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want them. Initially the book sets the reader up to be sympathetic toward Dennis, the father driven away by his wife’s problems who gladly seizes an opportunity to take in his daughters even after years of estrangement. Edith’s resentment of him seems to be on a trajectory of eventual reconciliation and Mae’s instant acceptance seems more reasonable. But as the novel progresses Dennis is gradually revealed to be a monster of sorts. He seems to have used the Civil Rights stuff as literary fodder, and he abandons his comrades in arms after they are no longer useful to him. He then grooms the underage Marianne, marries her when she is 17 and then abuses her into being a muse. Edie is right to flee him and Mae’s attachment to her father seems to be another grooming situation. This is dark dark stuff. Many make art out of their trauma, but where’s the line between that and creating trauma to create art? This very nicely undercuts, or at least complicates, the myth of the artist while also affirming the importance of art. And while the women in Dennis’s life are clearly his victims, they have their own issues as well and are not painted as mere wide eyed innocents. And this is not set up as some sort of moral equivalence between them and him; it just gives everyone their humanity.
This is a tough read content wise, but on prose and structure levels is absolutely compelling. It deals with trauma and mental illness in an emotionally real way without being overly sentimental. The structure of the book gives it enough unreality to give it a mythic quality that is satisfying. It is unrelenting in its portrayal of the darkness of the world it explores, and yet it is not hopeless. I will certainly be reading Apekina’s next book. This one was outstanding.
Book Festival Exceptions and Everything Else 2020 45/35