Review: The Lava in My Bones, by Barry Webster

>>Published: September 2012

>>Finally got around to it: October 2012

When Sam woke the next morning, he lurched upright in bed. Why had a man’s body brought him pleasure? Was he himself a man? Two men together was pointless—they can’t produce babies. What’s happened to logic? Does science have anything to do with this? With a flash of panic, Sam thought: the world is still dying and I’m doing nothing about it.

That week Sam ate rocks every day; he couldn’t resist their beckoning curvaceousness, their ribald density and earthy flavour. They swelled his libido, and Franz ate rocks with him. He became accustomed to Franz’s maleness, the deep voice vibrating the chest cavity, the hardness of his eyebrow-ridge, wiry hair curling in unexpected places, and the raw apple scent of his groin.

***

Luscious and positively dripping with style (and honey), Barry Webster’s The Lava in My Bones is a frank, often poetic exploration of sexuality, maturity, family, and abandonment. Divided into six parts, the novel shifts between differing perspectives, writing styles, and overarching metaphors to deliver a sweeping tale that exists somewhere in the cross section between magical realism and the science of the natural world.

Sam, the primary protagonist, is a geologist on academic assignment in Zurich. A perfunctory creature by nature, Sam, though a scientist, is driven by an imagination that colours his world in such convincing ways he is sometimes unable to discern the difference between what’s real and what isn’t. He frequently loses himself to doubt and ever-deepening questions as to the nature and purpose of his being—as an individual, and more specifically, as a sexual creature who, until his time in Zurich and a chance encounter with an artist named Franz, believed himself to be heterosexual.

Meanwhile back home in Labrador, where Sam grew up, his sister Sue is dealing with troubles of her own. Since Sam abandoned her to suffer their parents alone several years prior to the start of the novel, Sue has begun sweating honey. It is literally bursting from her, seeping out from her pores, her follicles, indeed from every possible bodily exit from which a liquid can escape. As her involuntary sugary expulsion increases, Sue is treated as a pariah in their town—as a deviant of a sort not spoken of in conservative company.

Binding Sam and Sue’s fates are: Franz, Sam’s lover from Zurich who at first lusts for Sam and turns him onto the sensual pleasure of devouring rocks, then turns on him, betrays him, and ushers him away, back to Canada where he is deemed insane (rock eating just isn’t understood in some places) and confined to a mental institution; their mother, a religious, sexually reticent zealot who deems her children to be in need of salvation by way of flinging consecrated urine at them as if it were holy water; and their father, a quiet non-entity who, it is implied, once upon a time exploited his daughter’s expanding honey-based sexuality in nefarious fish-catching ways, and is in the present context of the story has abandoned his entire family in search of his true love—a mermaid that may or may not exist.

The narrative arc to Webster’s work is one of self-acceptance, and of confronting one’s demons, be they internally or externally represented—the latter being Sam and Sue’s mother, and the book’s primary antagonist. The different styles play well to this effect, elegantly portraying the differences between Sam and Sue as emotional (with Sam being the more esoteric and uncertain, and Sue, who is several years his junior, becoming the voice of strength and sexual assuredness he might never be), and the differences between the siblings and their mother as primarily ideological.

Both Sam and Sue are tasked with embracing specifically what it is that separates them from the relative norm of their rather enclosed communities. Sam’s segments, being the more idiosyncratic of the two siblings and prone to flights of imaginative fancy, are delivered in sharpened exchanges that highlight the surreality of his situation and the earth-based predilections he experiences during his affair with Franz. In contrast with that and the segment of text at the beginning of this review, Sue’s segment is more outwardly sensual and linguistically explicit:

Suddenly, honey gushed from my skin. It shot in waves from the pores in my scalp, filled my eyebrows, and flowed so thickly across my open eyes that the edges of Jimmy’s body wavered as if seen through the window of a car in a car wash. The honey had been damned up for so long that it now poured forth in quantities I’d never experienced. It streamed from the crease below my jaw, cascaded in sheets over my breasts, hung in rippling curtains from my forearms, and was like a waterfall tumbling from my vagina. The parched ground below became a foam-dappled honey quicksand that splattered onto my ankles and calves and stuck to the soles and sides of my feet.

The two siblings—the stone-swallowing hardness of masculinity and the soft, flowing femininity of a person more sugar and sweetness than blood—are contrasted as inversions of age and confidence and strength, with the younger guiding the hand of the older, sometimes overtly, to a better understanding of self.

Franz, meanwhile, is contrasted with their mother: he, the lover who opens Sam’s mind to possibilities not previously entertained; she, the paragon of righteousness, and arbiter of what’s deemed acceptable—of the norm and all who are represented therein.

Franz is complicit in Sam’s undoing, both offering to expand his mind, but also pushing him away when the affair between the two men breaks past the tidy little temporary affair Franz had hoped it would be and grows and festers as something bigger. This, of course, is commitment, and through commitment, Franz’s own fears and self-doubts are revealed—doubts which lead him on a journey of his own, to discover the “diamond” within, and to cast off the veneer of self he assumed, naively, to be accurate. However, through his explorations and the adoption of a female alter-ego named Veronika, he begins to see the world through suddenly opened eyes—forcibly opened, to the point where he, again, naively, assumes a degree of understanding, this time towards the struggles faced by woman in his environment. It’s a disingenuous change, one evident of a man so eager to feel like he belongs, either to a sub-culture or to an individual, that he forces the illusion of understanding without first doing the work required to attain it with any degree of integrity.

If Franz is the novel’s implied uncertainty and overwhelming desire to discover some sense of belonging, Sam and Sue’s mother is the heaving slab on concrete unwilling to move or be shaken from its old world ideals. Ever the pious, no matter how outmoded her views may appear to be, their mother is presented as the novel’s wall-breaking, overtly authoritarian familial disaster. Webster gives mother dear an omniscient narrator’s voice to add further fuel to the implication that, despite having a manufactured bird’s eye view of her children’s perceived sexual indiscretions and devilish wrongdoings, she knows nothing of them as emotional, caring creatures, categorically refusing to see them as individuals but only as flawed offspring in need of saving. Her growth, if one can call it that, is in her willingness to lie and manipulate and assault others—all in conflict with her piety—in order to do what she’s decided is right and proper for her children. The end she hopes and prays for is justified, no matter the cost. The literal monster that Sam has become in the novel’s second to last segment is the manifestation of the doubt and self-degradation she has instilled in him from his earliest days, and is in the end her undoing as well.

There’s much more to be said for the quality of Webster’s psychosexual fairy tale, much of it praise-worthy. The Lava in My Bones is an excellent companion to piece to another Arsenal Pulp novel, Amber Dawn’s Sub Rosa. Though the narratives differ greatly, the themes explored via magical realism feel compliant with one another. The imagery presented in this novel, coupled with Webster’s perfunctory, delicate, and strangely lyrical language, is like none other I’ve read this year. Sam and Sue’s contrasted journeys of sexual discovery and emotional maturity are often joyous affairs, well realized and carefully constructed.

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