Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Review: In Perfect Light. Benjamin Alire Sáenz.

New York : Rayo, 2005. ISBN 0060779209

Michael Sedano

Benjamin Alire Sáenz writes a darned good story that anyone who comes upon the novel
will be glad for--a complex story rich with character, a sense of foreboding.

In Perfect Light refers less to vision than to perception, not to illumination but rather self-illumination. Sáenz brings us a welcome taste of inspiration with the hardest of edges, Grace and Andrés’ relationship.

The story springs from a confluence of randomness. Grace is middle-aged psychologist, diagnosed with cancer, she wants to refuse treatment and simply die. A widow and estranged from her son-- named Mister-- Grace pours herself into her counseling work hoping to save one more life as hers ends. Andrés comes to Grace in the middle of a lifelong tragedy, recommended by Dave, an El Paso lawyer whom Grace counseled as a teenage manslaughter driver who orphaned
four kids, including Andrés.

Andrés’ story is pure despair and self-destructive pain. Trapped in the criminal system after a blind rage fatal beating of a stranger, Andrés is obliged to undergo counseling. He finds Grace and her work compelling. Dave sees Grace for her miraculous spirit, and he has brought Andrés to Grace to heal Andrés, and himself.

Grace has never recovered from the early death of her husband, Sam. Nor has Mister. Grace has lived her life a prisoner of her memory of Sam. The title comes from her need to see Sam again in perfect light.

Andrés is trapped in his memories of death and degradation. Denied a father, Andrés’ surrogate is the older brother, who sequesters the family in Juárez, where the teenaged sister becomes a prostitute after Mando is killed in prison, and the eight year old sister is disappeared to parts unknown by an old Juárez whore, the employee of the brutal pimp who wants to put the child to work.

Sáenz’ writing power makes the melodrama disappear in urgency. He gives the story fast pacing, treating each chapter as a theme, advancing a character’s story in a flashback. In “Lost Files,” for example, we see Andrés at work as a computer fixer, irritated by a co-worker’s aftershave. The next paragraph recalls an argument between Andrés’ older brother, Mando, and their father over dad’s cologne. Andrés yearns to be able to delete the memory like he would a computer. In “Night,” the writer parallels the stories of Grace, Andrés, Mister, Dave, and a pederast named William Hart.

Sáenz doesn’t succeed entirely. Some tactics don’t work, such as the names. Sáenz introduces Andrés Segovia’s name with a bit of fanfare but other than three of four paragraphs, never develops a story out of the artist’s name. And I wonder if there’s not a similarly undeveloped connection between the blind orphan Mister is adopting, and Homero, the foul Juárez shit who owns Yolie, Andrés, and Ileana. Some will not like how Andrés and Grace’s stories conclude, though others will find them completely satisfying.

La Bloga bounced around Salvador Plasencia’s disparagement of a literary barrio some publishers and readers make of “Chicano Literature.” In Perfect Light furthers that discussion.

Certainly,in some readers’ experience, Chicano Literature revolves around unrecognized issues of language, code switching, geography, exclusion, national identity. Couple incomprehension to xenophobic intolerance of ambiguous nationality, and Plasencia’s happiness is clear: his novel would free from being stereotyped as Chicana Chicano Literature.

Chicana Chicano Literature is distinctively itself, yet not readily distinguished from “mainstream” United States Literature, in the hands of a master like Sáenz.

The artist takes the bare bones story of how Grace, Andrés, Dave, and Mister come together and fashions a masterly novel that is about none of those stereotypes, yet it embraces them. Almost entirely in English, even when the characters speak Spanish, In Perfect Light’s setting against the El Paso – Juárez border often disappears against the foreground of intense humanity.

Some of the action could have occurred only to Chicanos, and only in Juárez to Mexicanos, but that fact is irrelevant in the face of the novel’s dreadful predictability keeping a reader at the edge of the chair:

At the top of the Santa Fe Bridge, he looked back at Juárez, then looked toward El Paso. He wondered if he would ever have a country. Americans, they were always so sure of themselves—even Chicanos. So secure, as if the very country that was their home gave them a purpose. . . . The light of dawn brought so little comfort. p. 211

Andres has just resisted his instinct to pummel a pimp.

So they made tamales and Ileana mostly made a mess, but she laughed all day and she was so happy and beautiful and Andrés thought that whatever her heart was made of, it burned, and it was the only light in the house that mattered. p. 232

By now, Homero the pimp has the family firmly in his grasp and the children’s lives are about to become grimly lethal.

In Perfect Light will keep book groups lucky enough to select it actively discussing its merits. English majors one day will write papers on Sáenz, so today’s active readers will be able to tell their kids, “Saenz? Sure, I’ve been reading him forever.”


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