(Dzanc Books, 2022)
Disorientation is the rule in Alyssa Quinn’s Habilis, right from the first sentence: “The museum is a discotheque.” That strange business gets sorted out quickly, when a woman with the museum explains to her guest, “it’s radical I know, but we were facing bankruptcy.” Yet at the same time, the developing narrative has already started to fracture. If there’s a primary action, it’s getting to know the visitor, Lucy. As she drinks and drifts around the fundraiser, a sketch of her troubled past emerges; abandoned as a baby, raised a foster child, her lone sustaining connection seems to be this museum staffer, Dina. But how does Lucy’s childhood matter tonight, and what does Dina mean to her? A line or two suggests a romance, but then another passage maintains that Dina’s dead, and her name was “Danielle” anyway, and overall the dance floor offers few fixed points: “display cases slosh violet with light and the wall text bulges and strobes.”
The glimpses of Lucy’s past are only more strobe-flashes, and never allow the narrative to settle into some well-worn groove, like overcoming childhood trauma or repairing a broken relationship. Rather, this “radical” night at the museum⎯ a museum of natural history, as in Ben Stiller’s movie⎯ either puts Lucy through some violent change, at one point robbing her of speech, or ignores the woman altogether. Can she be considered the protagonist, at all? When the novel leaves so much about her unresolved? Rather, Quinn devotes many brief chapters, typically a page of unbroken prose in a sophisticated authorial voice, to some diorama or skeleton.
A lot of these show the development of the human hand, its defining thumb and index finger. The text also examines its evolutionary forebear, the antelope’s ankle (“metapodial”). Over an irregular series of paragraph-chapters, the antelope material continues roughly to mid-novel, reaching a kind of climax in a nightmare of taxidermy:
Dina cross-legged on the floor, a bloody mass of animal in her lap. Has a blade and is scissoring away its skin, lifting it from muscle like a pale glossy peel. Connective tissues stretch like cellophane. Blood vessels bulge. Around her are skeletons of wire and wool.
Quinn’s style can bedazzle us with its effects, her skillful verb usage vivifying what’s surreal, but her narrative imagination offers nothing Hollywood-friendly. Rather than story, she has her stops around the museum. The displays featuring a hand or wrist raise issues of wordless communication, while other exhibits present bones of the throat and jaw, the development of language, and these linked notions make Habilis a novel of ideas, if dreamlike and intense. It’s an investigation of how people communicate, and this also reaches a kind of climax at about center-point: “The sign repeated, pointing to objects of desire in order to speak about them, and in speaking, survive.”
But as I say, that’s just half the text, all particolored philosophy and inconclusive tragedy. Throughout, there have also loomed certain wholes, dioramas with fully assembled figures. These include of course the original “Lucy,” our human prototype, brought to light by the anthropologist Donald Johanson. Just ten years earlier, anthropologists Louis and Mary Leakey discovered “Olduvai Hominid 7,” known as “handy man,” Homo Habilis. A toolmaker who must’ve had the rudiments of language, he combines the major elements of the novel that bears his name⎯ until, roughly a hundred pages in, the book undergoes a wild metamorphosis.
Talk about disorientation: at the turn of a page, with the reiteration of a few lines from beginning, Habilis becomes a biographical novel. Quinn turns her hand to a fictionalized life of Mary Leakey, rich with historical detail. Of course, details out of the distant past surrounded Lucy and Dina too, as they tumbled around the funhouse, and the text’s second half has other points in common with its first. The authorial voice doesn’t change, allowing earlier insights to turn up again, sometimes in the same phrasing, and this omniscient observer also shows the anthropologist tumbling and fumbling. Born to the manor in England, Leakey found her life’s purpose in the dust of Olduvai Gorge, and amid a whirl of lights and noise far worse than any disco.
The Second World War didn’t spare Kenya or Ethiopia, the Leakeys’ territory, and among Quinn’s more eye-opening tidbits is the story of Louis’s gun-running. The couple needed the money, and more disturbingly, the guns went to hapless natives who served the Allies as cannon fodder. So the incident links up Mary’s biography with the other plotline of the novel’s second half: the history of the first rail line across British Africa. White men didn’t do that work, of course. Rather the colonials brought in “coolies”, and their hardscrabble sets up a counterpoint with the Leakeys’ comforts, starkly illuminating the racist structures within which turned up proof that all humankind has the same⎯African⎯origin.
This irony also informs the questions that nag at Lucy and Dina, the roots of human communication, since those roots burrow far beneath anyone’s skin-color. In other words, Habilis has a conceptual framework rather than a plot, one reasserted at novel’s close, when it returns to its museum wonderland. With that, the whole proves prettily interwoven, as well as threaded throughout with pretty prose, a complex thought experiment that achieves rare integrity. But is it literature? Does it engage the passions and create catharsis? Aristotle wouldn’t say so, and I too have reservations, mostly concerning the first half. I grew weary of the two women forever teasing out some drama and then losing it among the bones and stones. But then again, any vibrant artform must from time to time wow us with just such improbable, not to say miraculous, bricolage.