Review: Stop the Evil, or Apocalypse Now

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LOS ANGELES — Prior to reading Micheline Aharonian Marcom’s The Brick House (Awst Press, 2017), a novel that explores the horrors of the modern city through the irrational world of dreams, I had stumbled upon Marcom’s latest novel, The New American (Simon and Schuster, 2020), which, with its more conventional narrative structure and recognizable details of the phenomenal world outside, I had found to be perhaps a trifle too much on the surface for Marcom. I had read Aharonian’s trilogy of novels dealing with the Armenian Genocide and its aftermath, as they were coming out, and remember being seduced by Marcom’s depiction of the internal landscape of her characters and also by her deviations from ordinary discourse to shake the reader into the significance of the crime. Discovering The Brick House, which also journeys into the interiority of her characters to make sense of their lives, was like rediscovering Marcom.

The world of The Brick House is a strange world with a logic of its own. A dilapidated, neglected brick house sits on top of a hill on a moor in a remote peninsula in an unspecified location. (The closest we get to the specifics of its location is North America and the Pacific Ocean.) The caretaker of the house is old and indifferent. The furniture in the seven rooms lining a long corridor painted in a “foul green paint” is tattered, unwelcoming. “When one speaks of the brick house, one must also speak of the light that does not shine. The electric lights are lighted but they do not illuminate the darkness: the foul green paint extinguishes the light; the closets extinguish the light; the despair and loneliness, the closed heart of the traveler who visits with his sombering fear,” writes Marcom.

Travelers from the city are lured to the brick house through a chance encounter with a stranger, who approaches them in a supermarket and speaks to them of a house on the moor, where they are invited to spend a night, to “die,” and to return restored. The visitors to the house are lonely, fearful and panicky, plagued by feelings of “dissolution and separateness.” They are “city men” come to get away from the pollution of their “noisy and busy” city lives, the banalities of their conversations about “cruel bosses and the rising cost of goods and petrol,” and the horror of “an agreed-upon vision of the world” they share with their spouses. These desperate souls are described as pilgrims on a pilgrimage to an unreachable end.

Something is clearly amiss in “the new desert city,” and Marcom is determined to understand “the cause of causes” that created the “unrivered,” “unforested” “concrete immensity.” There are hundreds of colorful vehicles on the “huge concrete overpasses,” but “no animal or plant life” one can see. “The noise from the cars and the noises of the helicopters and aeroplanes in the machined sky above her [the unidentified traveler] fill the air with their din and strip her naked (for although her body remains clothed, her soul is bared, she thinks, with this onslaught to her ear)” (italics mine). Citizens in this metropolis are “forced to buy” goods, with the promise “of happiness and good health and order,” from “loud advertisements calling to [them] to own things.”

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To expose the soullessness of this “cold grey city,” “designed for the dimensions of the automobile and not to the scale of man,” Marcom transports the reader into the world of dreams, a world that cannot be reached through the “heaps of data and information” and “conclusive evidence.” Hers is a craving for a knowledge that goes beyond the “explicable cause and effect” of the rational world. Invoking the irrational world thus becomes an essential tool to expose “the lie,” and to restore life to its “normal version,” its natural state. Indeed, the sacred past, when nature was pure, is repeatedly invoked. Ironically, it is the dream, the “notreal,” that helps purify the earth. The Brick House forces the reader to ask some fundamental questions: Is technology indeed a good thing when, rather than enhance our humanity, “progress and convenience” make us lose our souls? The travelers dream the nightmare of the “red plastic stirrers, yellow, white, and green bags” they deposited in large plastic garbage bags, and which found their way into the middle of the ocean, into “the insides of bones tangled up in polyurethane wrath” of the fish, and ultimately into our bellies. Dreams become, as stated in the epigraph to one of the chapters in the book, “the guiding words of the soul.” C.G Jung

The Brick House has the urgency of ”Stop the madness, or apocalypse now.” Marcom has the audacity to “dream the rivers behind the unrivered lands,” and to see “the sky uncity-electrified and gloriously starry in the black night.” She has the even greater courage to celebrate a new world and a new blue lake )with still no designation in language. The novel concludes with new lovers dreaming of a new “yet unwritten book” in an indecipherable tongue . . . even if the question remains, “For whom?” (italics mine).

In Marcom’s fictional world, tossing away the material world of money and reason, along with the goods the city-dwellers have accumulated, is possible. Once unreachable, “Mount Ararat in the unreachable country,” is now within reach, for the dream leads “upward toward starlight.” It ushers “the immanent world, palpable, the high mountain of Ararat, exact and holy, that when climbed once more leads outward as if into a continuously murmuring sea.” The dream of “the sky black-brown” morphs into that of “the green and blue dome of the old heavens.” The madness has been stopped. The transformation has been made possible through the irrational world of these dreams. No need to usher in the “apocalypse now.”

By invoking “the high mountain of Ararat” and “the story of the Urartian queen who seduced the young king east of the Rhine,” Marcom returns to her Armenian roots, just as she had done earlier with her trilogy of novels on the Armenian Genocide.

A valuable addition to the volume are the illustrations by Fowzia Karimi which, in their own whimsical way, represent the dreams and the fantasies of the travelers. These drawings, done in the tradition of Armenian illuminated manuscripts, are also a tribute to Aharonian’s Armenian heritage.

Marcom has an amazing gift with words. The economy and the power of expression of her “An agreed-upon vision of the world” is impossible to miss. Her abundant use of colors enhances the imagery and adds to the vividness of what is represented. This is how Aharonian describes the polyethylene world of the city: “See all of the factories in all of the cities producing the small, colored plastic pellets of which all other plastic goods eventually will be formed. They are no bigger, these pellets, than the black eye inside the coho salmon’s newly laid orange egg. Reds, blues, yellows, greens, oranges, and whites . . .” The bold liberties Marcom takes with language, on the other hand—“an undirted road,” ”the river unrivered,” “the forest unfrosted,” “uncity-electrified”—bring the reader closer to sharing her outrage at the massacre of nature.

Aharonian cares deeply. She understands that a good world is necessary to sustain the “small cosmic human heart,” and that remaining humanized is necessary for the soul (italics mine). The Brick House enacts the possibility of preserving that goodness. Yes.

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