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Monday, October 5, 2015

Telling Time: Jamie Iredell's Last Mass

It's a cliche to say that the principal character in a book is Time itself; nevertheless, this is precisely true of Iredell's lyric nonfiction, Last Mass.  Written in a series of vignettes thematically if not linearly related, Last Mass hops back and forth in time like a highly caffeinated Mexican jumping-bean.  Ultimately a sense of depth and texture emerges from the whole that cannot be fully articulated in any single passage or from any single perspective.  

This sort of thing, of course, has been done before, but I think what makes this book unique is that it not only takes place across different times, but different types of time: there is the authorial present, in which Iredell battles loneliness, frustration, and self-doubt struggling to compose Last Mass itself in an isolated cabin at the Hambidge Artist's Retreat; there is the autobiographical past with young Jamie's coming of age as a Catholic in California; there is the historical past, the story of Father Junipero Serra whose missionary work was foundational in the European colonization of California; and there is mythic past as Jesus works his way agonizingly through the Stations of the Cross.  Interlacing these is what I might call cultural-mythic past: the representation of Jesus and Father Serra in film, fiction, and art

Each of these time frames informs the others, and young Jamie's world is shaped - though he is unconscious of it - by the violent and complex relationship of Serra to the natives he wished to convert - and beyond that by the bleeding Christ whose passion and death leaves even secularists with discordant and conflicting conceptions of the relationship between guilt, innocence, torment, and redemption.

Within each vignette, Iredell can be equally fluid with time, as in this description of a quotidian middle-school social-studies project:

From my backyard I unearthed earth and mixed it with the California brome that my father had weed-whacked, comingling with water, and I made my adobe mix.  Into the shoeboxes this mix went, to dry in the sun.  Sunlight was rare, with our foggy central coast weather, and a hairdryer came in handy, a device of which Spaniards and Indians alike were devoid.  Once dried, I stacked my tiny bricks and formed up walls then tiled a roof.  I whitewashed said walls with a watercolor paintbrush and plaster of paris.  My mission.  I had no Indians because by the time I was born almost all of the Indians were dead.

Oh, my word.  I could spend days explicating this lovely little passage, but I'll just pick out a few of the highlights.  I'll start with that phrase "unearthed earth," a typical Iredell device, which I once thought should be called an Iredellism, but that name is un-euphonious, so I've settled on nonaphor instead, a figure of speech in which something is compared to itself.  Iredell is past-master at using these for laconic and ironic effect.

Then we come to the hairdryers, of which Spaniards and Indians are "devoid."  That word - wrong to the perfect degree - connotes that somehow we'd expect hairdryers should have been in 18th-Century California, and their absence is as notable as if there'd been no plant-life.  This, of course, is exactly how it would seem to sixth-grade Jamie who completes his "mission" (with double meaning intact) only to discover he has no Indians to put in it.

All of this, the layers of absurdity and irony, presented straight-faced, are then contrasted with adult Iredell's perspective - who is wrestling with absences and voids of his own as he completes his current "mission" - and Father Serra, who represents the most dangerous form of religious fanatic.

The sincere one.

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