A Review/Reflection of Janet Fitch's White Oleander
You are standing at the bedside of a loved one who has just died. You are watching your child get baptized. You are enjoying a sunset. You are at the top of a mountain. You are listening to a great moment in music. You are gazing at a powerful work of art.
A “liminal space” is that experience that is on the boundary of the real and the poetic. It is that moment when the experience is greater than just the totality of the moment because it speaks or connects to something deeper and more. In religious writings such a notion is found more with the mystics, finding the presence of God in the “thin moments” of life. It is the time and the moment when it feels like one is closer to the divine, more aware of God’s presence than one might be in the ordinary, mundane moments of living. You watch the sunset and unless you are a cold, unfeeling robot, you become introspective, thoughtful, and maybe start to think about creation, life, and the meaning of everything. A single moment makes you aware of more than just the moment itself. The difficult thing about these moments is that they get very hard to describe and talk about because we are talking not just about God, but about the ways in which the individual is experiencing God and the ways that life may be perceived. It is a personal and profound moment in which one encounters the infinite presence of the divine. You can speak to the moment itself, you can try to speak to the all that is beyond the moment, and you may find yourself falling and getting lost in the profundity of the moment. There is only so much that can be said with assurance about the moment and there is so much that cannot be said, and we find ourselves in that thin, liminal space. We may try to alter our senses with various substances, but we will still be reaching and searching to get a grasp around what it is that we are experiencing. And just because we say, “dude” or “whoa” doesn’t make it profound. Words become cumbersome, difficult, and get in the way when trying to capture the depth of the moment.
This is one of the places where the arts can offer a lot to work with. Music, poetry, painting, dance, and whatever else I haven’t mentioned (I’m looking at you – bottle-cap painter) can speak to the human experience in a way that might be universalizing and in a way that offers a poignant articulation of the depth of that experience. How do you describe the rage and the pain you feel at an unjust loss? How do you describe your grief in a way that captures the true depth of your tears? How do you talk about are even claim an awareness of the divine in those moments of sorrow and pain? How do you express the joy of living at the moments of birth or marriage in a way that is free and unencumbered? These might be some moments when one can claim to be in a liminal space and experiencing the divine, but are just not able to fully capture such a moment and experience with only their words.
Bring in the disheveled, the smelly, the pretentious, and the dressed in black artists. Let them write their ballads and sonatas expressing joy and longing. Let them share their poems speaking beyond metaphors and similes to the depth of humanity. Let them offer their paintings and sculptures connecting us with the beauty of the mundane and the profound place of the magnificent. They help us with those moments when our words fail.
Here is what I like about Janet Fitch’s book White Oleander (1999); throughout the work she is working to bring the reader into the liminal space of the story. Fitch’s work is peppered with poetry breaking up the narrative and inviting the reader to do more than stop and smell the roses (or in this case the oleanders). The chapters fall together, from poem to paragraph, reversing the entropy of the moment into a narrative. It is, by all rights, a traditional novel telling a story. Just as the chapters fall into a narrative, they fall out of the narrative, moving from what is happening to what is being experienced, embracing an entropy leading the reader to look from the particular to the universal as each moment stretches apart in a poetic style. The reader is invited to stop and to consider the experience of the main character, to consider the feelings of the daughter, and to stay in the emotional content moment. While I would not describe Fitch’s poetry as brilliant or powerful, in the context of the novel it is effective. With each poetic moment the narrative unravels, the pacing slows, and the moment expands. The reader is brought into a liminal space where he or she goes beyond the action and the dialogue and is invited to experience the place where more than what can be seen is known. The reader is brought into a liminal space.
Perhaps it is significant to note that White Oleander is not a sunny, positive, happy book. It is one with many dark and disturbing turns, with people behaving badly, with no one emerging a hero, and still we are invited into those thin spaces where a real beauty can be found. For Fitch, that the poetic and the liminal can be found in the difficult, the painful, and the darkness of life just as it can be found in the beautiful and glorious. Fitch is adept in showing the poetry in the pain of life, and I would claim that in such poetry the divine can be found.
While White Oleander is not intended to be a devotional book, I would suggest that it could be used to shape and guide the believer’s devotional approach to life. First, it invites us to consider and to look for the thin spaces, the liminal moments of life and to take note of them. It is a cliché, but one that needs to be stressed because in the din and race of our lives it is easy to rush past those moments and times when we are brought to be aware of the divine. Sitting in the beauty of the moment is good and worthwhile. Reading a poem that speaks of the beauty of the day, of the moment is good and worthwhile. Just being present in the glory of a moment is a good thing.
Second, we are reminded that those poems of angst and ennui (provided they are not dripping with adolescent despair) also have a place in one’s devotions as well. Take a moment and consider the difficulty that you are facing. Those moments of fear and sorrow are also liminal moments. There is an emotional depth that is surrounding those decisions and the overall experience. Take a moment and remember the pain grief in a poetic way. In those moments you are in a liminal, a thin space. The good in staying in such a moment, the good to staying in such pain is that in those thin spaces you will find the presence of the divine.