The BOOKPRESS November 1998

"Defiance" review

Destiny Kinal

Carole Maso.
Dutton, 1998.
264 pages, $23.95.

"It seems to me rather pointless to compare writing by women published in the mainstream and writing by men published in the mainstream," Carole Maso’s letter to the editor in November’s Harper’s began, "as all writers, both male and female, who publish there must by necessity mimic the dominant forms in order to be published at all."

Carole Maso loves a mess—documents flawed and alive. She disdains the pursuit of the airtight, the deadliness of perfection.

Her new novel, Defiance, is a story of imprisonment. Its narrator, Bernadette, is a genius, warped by the events of her childhood. This misfit, who has come into her own as a mathematics professor at an unnamed university that grooms the children of the elite, has been inspired to shape herself into the instrument of a strange and ritualistic revenge. "I cannot stress enough my dismay at the peculiar behavioral habits of the heterosexual....Their tonguing... Their betrayals and ruptures. How these men disgust me—their punches and winks, their subtexts."

Tension immediately establishes itself in style; Defiance strains against two traces. A lyrical voice in italics sets up against a circular narrative, iterative and feminine. Together, language and form conjure the actual prison where Bernadette awaits execution after being convicted of the slaughter of two of her male students. We are sobered when the text begins to mimic prison bars, narrow stripes falling across the page.

By the time the sheer monstrosity of Bernadette’s algebraic constructs begin to reveal themselves to us, in all their compulsive unreasonable logic, we have already begun to vibrate sympathetically with the character, first as a child, in the poignancy of her relationship with her brother Fergus, killed in Vietnam, and later with her capacity to long for normalcy, to imagine that it can still be achieved.

After putting Defiance down, I have begun to think in the language of mathematics: let t = all the trees in the world.

"Three will equal six. Six will be red. Fusion of purple and afternoon. And seven will equal darkness tinged with blood. And x the scalloped panty he moves toward. And eight years old could equal magenta or no or stop, couldn’t it ? Don’t. Wait."

Carole Maso has breached the mainstream.

—Destiny Kinal

Return to Front Page