The gendered lines of genius

blue: season, by Chris Lombardi

4 minute read
Book cover: title above in chunky blue cursive; abstract swathes of blue and green frame a silhouette of a woman in a bonnet.

Was James Joyce the first author to write exclusively for academics? The extreme density of his work, with its elegant nonsense and clang associations and gratuitous punnery, seems precisely calibrated to send even the most bespectacled Barnes & Noble café-goer sprinting toward the Tom Clancy shelf. Particularly in his later works, Joyce’s prose is proudly resistant to overt meaning, a thick and thorny forest of overlapping hallucinations. Abandon all hope ye who enter here.

Scholars, though, find not just meaning but genuine delight in the steep hills of allusion with which Joyce torments his readers. He released his imperial works, Ulysses (1922) and Finnegans Wake (1939), just in time for the practice of literary theory to become a legitimate profession. The intrepid aesthetes who once haunted the outer reaches of the English department now have an indispensable catalog to which they can subject their endless interpretations and connections and obsessions until the stars turn cold. Joyce, the Platonic ideal of the 20th-century modernist, is a writer so difficult he must be a genius.

A haunting presence

Ah, but for every genius there must be a muse. Enter Lucia Joyce, James’s daughter and a haunting, ubiquitous presence in Philadelphia writer Chris Lombardi’s novel blue: season. When graduate student Molly O’Donnell is resuscitated by neighbors after being hit by a car, she wakes up convinced that she is the infamous Lucia. She speaks in Joycean riddles and thinks every other person in the room is Samuel Beckett. And, like Lucia, she is immediately hauled into a psychiatric facility and stuffed to bursting with unpronounceable medications.

The journey of Molly/Lucia as she suffers through the regimen supplied by Baltimore’s Jacob Pearlstone Psychiatric Institute forms one half of Lombardi’s narrative. The other half is told in excerpts from Molly’s journals prior to the accident, documenting her work toward her doctoral dissertation. This divided structure provides Lombardi an opportunity to show off her skills as a narrative stylist. When Molly is in Lucia mode, the point of view is third person, detached, often observing Molly through the eyes of a sympathetic social worker named Anne-Marie. The first-person journal grants us a glimpse of Molly’s true voice, which is breezy and conversational, even as darkness begins its slow descent into her inner world.

Snippets of Molly’s life sneak into the journal alongside her scholarship: she has a predictably doomed affair with her professor, she poses as an artist’s model for her punk rock roommate, she trains with her sister to run the New York marathon. Along the way, she is disturbed, first periodically and then regularly, by vague, fragmented images that might just be repressed memories.

Oh, and you’ll never guess which iconic 20th-century modernist she’s chosen as the subject of her dissertation. But blue: season is not merely a tale of research turning to obsession. In the murky waters of Joyceland, Molly finds possible echoes of her relationship with her own father, Will O’Donnell. Will was a Joyce scholar, too, but his not-too-recent death has prevented him from seeing his daughter follow in his imposing footsteps. Prior to his passing, Will had been grooming Molly for the life of a Joycean academic—and possibly for other, more sinister things.

Plumbing patriarchal dynamics

Boiling underneath the surface narrative of obsession and psychosis is an intense, poetic, unblinking indictment of predatory men and the subtle systems of power they’ve created for themselves. Molly’s break from reality is preceded by a maelstrom of literary and personal epiphanies, all of which point toward an upsetting and inevitable realization: behind every successful man is a woman (or girl) who’s been held down, drained of her creative spirit, and finally abandoned to make room for the man’s swollen genius.

This is far from revelatory, and Lombardi isn’t the first author to portray Lucia as a sympathetic and misunderstood figure, used and possibly abused by her father. But blue: season goes further, using Molly/Lucia’s story to highlight the ways in which patriarchal dynamics become embedded in some of the deepest, most formative parts of our culture. In Lombardi’s telling, Lucia is not just an inspiration for Finnegans Wake but an active (if unwilling) collaborator—a claim that is not without precedent. And yet Lucia was sent to live out her days in a mental institution while James has defied mortality by way of the syllabus, the symposia, and the scholarly press. Lombardi forces us to confront one of history’s hard truths: that creative, eccentric men are celebrated as geniuses, while creative, eccentric women are derided as mad.

The women in blue: season recognize in each other the internal and external wounds of male abuse, physical and otherwise. Those wounds don’t just hurt; they silence, and they create a culture of silence that has lasting consequences.

A must for English majors

Is there a market for a novel about a James Joyce scholar who is the daughter of another James Joyce scholar? Lombardi laments in her postscript that she had a hard time selling the novel, and you can probably see why. But if that demographic is out there, if there are current and former English majors looking to question everything they know and also experience some gut-wrenching internal turmoil—delivered in potent, evocative prose by Lombardi—blue: season should be on their list. It’s a book with much to say, and one that deserves an audience.

What, When, Where

blue: season. By Chris Lombardi. San Francisco: Mumblers Press, December 15, 2022. 495 pages, paperback; $22.95. Get it here.

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