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Tom Chaney No. R721: Confusing the surface with layer underneath

Of Writers and Their Books, A review of author Melissa Clark's Find Courtney First printed 30 July 2006.
The next earlier Tom Chaney Of Writers and Their Books column,Wendell Berry's Hannah Coulter

By Tom Chaney

Confusing the surface with the layer underneath

Mid way in her novel, Find Courtney (Bridgeworks Publishing, 2004) Melissa Clark has the character Fanoy remark "Language may be a sham, but what we see with our eyes is not." By this point in the story we have learned not even to trust language when it reports what the eye has seen.

Fanoy, the narrator, a college student in Florida, has been invited to share an apartment with Courtney, a graduating senior whom she calls a Barbie college student -- a wealthy spoiled young woman who owns her own condo, spends her father's money lavishly, and who disappears one August morning on her daily run on the beach.

Courtney had relegated Fanoy to a tiny room in the apartment, to one shelf in the fridge, and to the status of a mere observer of her exotic life. Fanoy details her place, but claims not to be bothered by it.

When Courtney vanishes during finals week, Fanoy does not report the disappearance, rather she gradually becomes Courtney -- eating her food, watching her giant television, drinking her liquor.

Ten happy days pass after the disappearance when Courtney's father Bret appears, and the search for Courtney begins. With Fanoy in tow, Bret takes all the right steps. They contact the college dean. They speak to Courtney's professor. They talk to a bartender who has been Courtney's drug supplier. Bret reports the disappearance to the police. And they call a campus meeting to determine if anyone has a word on the whereabouts of Courtney.

As the search for Courtney is chronicled by Fanoy we learn of her own background -- daughter of a minor college professor who abused, belittled, and controlled her artist mother until she abandoned the family leaving only the memory of a book of the paintings of the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch. Fanoy's memory of those paintings becomes the controlling image of her life.

The second wife had been the typical wicked stepmother, forcing Fanoy to care for her triplet half-siblings. The five members of the new family had died in a fire of suspicious origin. Fanoy is in college because of an insurance settlement related to the fire.

The reader learns early on not to trust anyone in the maelstrom surrounding Courtney. Not Bret; not Courtney; most of all -- not the narrator.

Bret whisks Fanoy away to his isolated Florida mansion which he explains had been built by a 1930s and 1940s ecdysiast named Crystal Lalique. A fan dancer, Bret explains -- "A specialist in male entertainment. Used to be very popular on the vaudeville circuit." One who "uses fans to obscure and reveal."

Crystal, along with the paintings of Munch, becomes a central metaphor of the novel -- a psychological thriller.Fanoy obscures her part in the death of her family and becomes Bret's lover. In this she replaces Courtney whom we learn is not Bret's daughter but a childhood kidnap victim raised by Bret as a perfect child and later lover.

Crystal is actually Daisy Loudermilk of Cincinnati who bashed her mother's head in with a poker.

The statue of Laocooen which Crystal made the center of the fountain in front of her mansion holds the poker in his hand in place of the usual trident.

We know that Courtney is dead. I must tell you that she is in repose beneath Crystal's fountain.

Do not fear that I have revealed all.

The landscape is littered with bodies. Fanoy is last seen in Oslo. She feasts on the paintings of Munch and walks the streets listening to Grieg on her walkman.

"It's time for me to leave. Maybe I'll go to Venice. Or Paris. Maybe I'll go to Housatonic, Massachusetts, and look up Bret's real family. I'd like to see the riverbank where he was born in a moment of hesitation.

"I went back to the gallery for the last time to buy a postcard of Munch's The Scream. I finally understand that painting. I can look at it now. I know what it's about. Bret was so wrong when he called me a coward.

"In the Long Gallery I thought I saw my mother, walking past the windows, trailing her long cape. . . . You know it's time to go, when you start seeing things.

"But I can handle it. I can handle anything. It's a family tradition. As my father used to say, she who transplants, survives."

Melissa Clark is an accomplished literary ecdysiast. Her prose both conceals and reveals. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, Thomas Scheffey, and their two children.

Truth, as Fanoy puts it, lies beneath the facts.
Tom Chaney can be found telling stories, planning his next meal, and occasionally selling books at

Box 73 / 111 Water Street
Horse Cave, Kentucky 42749. Phone (270) 786-3084. email: Tom Chaney

Munch's The Scream

The statue of Laocoo

This story was posted on 2011-07-31 05:01:17
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