Chris Abani, The Virgin of Flames. New York: Penguin Books, 2007. $14.00 paperback (ISBN-978-0-14-303877-1), 291 pages.
Reviewed by Megan Savage
Acclaimed novelist/poet/saxophonist Chris Abani is known as much for his startling personal history (thrice imprisoned in his native Nigeria for his writings, sentenced to death, tortured), as for his impressive literary credentials (four books of poetry published, three novels and a novella, awards from Hurston/Wright, PEN Hemingway and the Lannan Literary foundation among others). In Abani’s latest novel, The Virgin of Flames, he turns his attention from Nigeria to his most recent home, Los Angeles. Abani’s Los Angeles is a kind of mecca for the exiled. Providing an ersatz family for the book’s central figure, Black, a muralist who entertains visions of the angel Gabriel, are Sweet Girl, the transsexual stripper on whom Black fixates; Bomboy, wealthy owner of an illegal Halal butcher shop and ex-child soldier in his Rwandan homeland; and Iggy, Black’s landlord/mentor, proprietor of the Ugly Store and Jewish trance tattoo artist who hangs by a set of silver rings in her back while she etches her clients with visionary tattoos. This band of outsiders might as easily be the set-up for a joke as the cogs in a heartwarming tale of kinship across cultural divides. To Abani’s credit, the book is neither; Abani consistently frustrates both mockery and redemption in order to create a portrait of an artist searching for something akin to truth: not merely the answer to the riddle, but the riddle itself.
Much critical attention will be paid to Abani’s take on Los Angeles, that most fabled of cities. Abani’s portrait diverges from those that focus on the seedy underside of Hollywood glamour or its socioeconomic stratification. In Abani’s Los Angeles, the iconography of Hollywood and the struggle of the marginalized dissolve equally into the nexus between artistic and religious vision, allowing Los Angeles to become, purely, a city of angels. In this way, Abani’s Virgin is a Kunstlerroman in the tradition of Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, tracing the development of an artist to his prime. However, whereas in the former book, Stephen Deadalus must cast off the family and religious influences of his youth in order to grow as an artist, Abani’s asks, what if the process were reversed?
For Black, artistic evolution is predicated on the unspooling of his mysterious past: a Salvadoran mother who is convinced he is visited by the Virgin, and an Igbo father whose belief in a family curse causes Black to be dressed as a girl until he is seven. Black is convinced that somewhere in this childhood lies the pattern for his confused sexuality and the inspiration for his life’s work. Yet this unraveling is a dangerous process that leaves Black blind to the complexities of his present. Iggy, concerned with Black’s tunnel vision, warns, “There is no core to anything, Black. It’s like an onion; if you just keep peeling away you will disappear.” We hear the voice of the trauma survivor speaking through Iggy, cautioning that if we rely too heavily on the notion that we are the sum of our pasts, those pasts may reach into the present to drown us.
One of Abani’s strengths as a writer is the arresting image, and there are a number in The Virgin of Flames, seemingly designed to haunt: a row of anatomically incorrect Barbie dolls with newly attached “clay penises hardening in the slow heat;” blood running in a “steady stream” from Bomboy’s boucherie into a culvert of the L.A. River; the dogs Black arranges into a cairn in the river to ease their deaths. Ultimately, however, the most arresting images in the book have to do with Abani’s theme connecting childhood trauma to inspiration. Over the course of the novel, Black paints a 50-foot high image of Fatima, a composite goddess, part Virgin, part veiled Muslim woman, part Sweet Girl, crushing a dove and holding an AK-47. No sooner does he paint it, however, than he strips it from the wall in front of a group of schoolchildren, whose witnessing of the event Black imagines will contaminate them just as his own childhood contaminates him: ”for years after,” we are told, “those boys and girls, even when they grew old, would never be satisfied with any love they had, because they, like Black, became infected by the desire for Fatima…, it would fill every pore in their body and drive them crazy” (238-9).
Abani’s book opens and closes on the Los Angeles River, “iridescent in its concrete sleeve…losing faith with every inch traveled.” Abani weaves the river through the book and in the end explicitly evokes Heraclitus, assuring us that the River “is never the same twice.” This might be thought of as a comforting image, one that suggests renewal, rebirth. And yet Abani denies us this reassurance when he immediately replaces the image of the river with a much harsher image, that of man-made “spines of freeways” that “like blood, circle in hope.” Similarly, even as he assures us that “permanence is this River…” Abani states “there will never be no more River.” In other words, we all must make our own peace with the past. For Black and his fellow survivors, for we who are all in our way, survivors of the traumas of our time, the consolation of any kind of permanence has become as impossible as it is necessary, and transcendence from the past has become as ephemeral as it is absolute.