A Carnivore’s Inquiry
A Novelby Sabina Murray
The spellbinding new book by the winner of the 2003 PEN/Faulkner Award is a gripping, literary psychological thriller about a young woman and a peculiar taste for flesh
The spellbinding new book by the winner of the 2003 PEN/Faulkner Award is a gripping, literary psychological thriller about a young woman and a peculiar taste for flesh
Hailed as “a cracklingly original, brilliantly conceived modern Gothic” by Elle, Sabina Murray’s first book since she won the PEN/Faulkner Award for The Caprices is a tour de force of intelligent suspense that seduces us with dark delight in her taboo subject.
When we meet Katherine, the winning–and rather disturbing–twenty-three-year-old narrator, she has just left Italy and arrived in New York City, but what has propelled her there is a mystery. She soon strikes up an affair with a middle-aged Russian ‘migr” novelist she meets on the subway, and almost immediately moves into his apartment. Katherine’s occasional allusions to a frighteningly eccentric mother and tyrannical father suggest a somberness at the center of her otherwise flippant and sardonic demeanor. Soon restless, she begins journeying from literary New York to rural Maine and Mexico City, trailed, everywhere she goes, by a string of murders. As the ritualistic killings begin to pile up, Katherine takes to meditating on cannibalism in literature, art, and history, and examining subjects as diverse as the Donner Party, the fall of Dante’s Count Ugolino, and the true story behind G”ricault’s “The Raft of the Medusa.” The story races toward a hair-raising conclusion, while Katherine and the reader close in on the reasons for both her and her mother’s fascination with aberrant, violent behavior.
This is a novel of ideas and a brilliantly subtle commentary on twenty-first-century consumerism and Western culture’s obsession with new frontiers. Told in highly intelligent prose “with echoes of both Poe and Patrick McGrath” (Bookforum), A Carnivore’s Inquiry is a sly, unsettling exploration of the questionable appetites that lurk beneath the veneer of North American civilization.
“The disembodied evil that comes from nowhere in particular but creeps into every corner of a person’s life is the special province of the psychological suspense novel. Sabina Murray gives the form a dazzling twist in her debut novel, A Carnivore’s Inquiry, which is narrated by a young woman obsessed with the notion of cannibalism. . . . That we trail after this wolfish character as doggedly as her doomed lovers has to do with Murray’s mesmerizing voice, which is lovely, literate and deeply unnerving on the subject of human hunger.” –Marilyn Stasio, New York Times Book Review
“With a taste for Goya, tequila, and perhaps human blood, Katherine Shea, the pallid, promiscuous young narrator of Sabina Murray’s elegantly written A Carnivore’s Inquiry, is another scorpion you’re not sure you want to curl up with. . . . Just about everything Katherine has to say is provocative and intriguing, and she punctuates her travelogue with clever disquisitions on art and cannibalism. The characters are weird, funny, and original; every sentence crackles, and the dialogue defines punchy. PEN/Faulkner winner Murray is a big talent.
” –Jennifer Reese, Entertainment Weekly
“A cracklingly original, brilliantly conceived modern Gothic. . . . Murray has both a rare willingness to trust our intelligence and an effortless narrative control. As the story builds like a tropical storm, irresistible forces whirling around a still center, we explore varieties of appetite and hunger, the relationship between civilization and taboo, the freedom and loneliness of wolves, explorers, criminals, outsiders. The elegantly thrilling, surprisingly poignant implications resonate long after the final page.” (Must Read) –Kate Christensen, Elle
“A Carnivore’s Inquiry is an artful and eerie and compelling novel. If we take a pinch of the character of Lolita–ten years later and disturbed in a Gothic way–and a pinch of Bret Easton Ellis’s Patrick Bateman from American Psycho, then we might have an approximation of Sabina Murray’s heroine and narrator, Katherine Shea. So put on your literary seat belts and enjoy the ride.” –Jonathan Ames, author of Wake Up, Sir!
‘murray not only creates a magnetic, amoral and utterly memorable heroine, she invents a whole new genre: ironic gothic.” –Washington Post
‘my book of the year. Murray’s novel takes the everyday and turns it into something hypnotic, profound and alarming. . . . Murray’s prose is lean and sharp and brushes with the genius of Bukowski and Selby. Dark, clever and funny all at once. Brilliant stuff.” –Helen Walsh, author of Brass
‘murray is a mesmerizing writer who uses succinct, evocative language with the precision of a pointilist.” –Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
“Though A Carnivore’s Inquiry has any number of scary (not to mention stomach-churning) moments, the novel’s real appeal lies in Katherine’s erudite, mordant humor . . . Beneath both the humor and the horror lies a scathing indictment of American values. Katherine, with her ceaseless hunger, serves as a gorgeous, freaky metaphor for that clich’d American Dream of having it all.” –Joanna Smith Rakoff, Time Out New York
“Compelling, maddening, hilarious . . . remarkable.” –Ron Bernas, Detroit Free Press
“A bold reflection on identity, the settling of landscapes, and greed. . . . Katherine’s world is out of balance from the beginning. And the subtleties of her slow unhinging become apparent only after she seduces us–as she has so many others–and leads us to her lair.” –Kevin Rabalais,
“Highly recommended, compelling, slightly creepy, literary tale of unexplained deaths littering the path of a girl fascinated by cannibalism. We are told her life story, spotted with nuggets of extraordinary history. A fantastic read.” –The Bookseller
“Why is this book, full of murder, loneliness and insanity, so darn funny? That’s the genius of this oddly wonderful and engrossing second novel by Murray. . . . The plot itself is tight and fast, quirky and dangerous.” –Anne Rochell Konigsmark, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“[A] mesmerizing new novel. . . . Murray paces her psychological thriller with consummate control, keeping the reader enthralled through subtle suggestion and a scattering of grisly details. But the author has a darker purpose. More than the story of one deranged woman’s obsession, the novel and its brilliant subtext hint at the ways American society devours the weak, while building a case for a blood hunger in human nature. . . . Readers will be hooked by Murray’s classy treatment of her sexy-sinister subject matter.” –Publishers Weekly
“The story is a gothic triumph for writer Sabina Murray.” –Deloris Tarzan Ament, Seattle Times & Seattle Post-Intelligencer
“Original hardly comes close to describing this modern American literary Gothic, likely to be one of the most bizarre, compelling and haunting novels you’ll read in a long time: a beautifully written horror tale that slowly reveals the pathological state of its narrator, an extraordinarily imaginative and well read young woman fixated on tales of cannibalism, and a story that emerges as a Darwinian take on history as hunger and civilization as the veneer that covers truths about how the fittest survive. . . . A Carnivore’s Inquiry shows Murray to be an incredibly inventive fiction writer, fashioning here a fascinating protagonist who delights as she destroys. No way you’re going to put this down.” –Joan Baum, The Independent (Hamptons)
“Gothic, grisly and strangely gripping.” –Suzie Door”, Bookseller (UK)
“While both grim and gripping, Murray’s novel is a compulsively readable statement on the human condition.” –Francis W. Decker, Style Weekly Magazine
‘murray is already garnering ‘must-read” reviews for what she describes as a novel that looks at cannibalism, art, literature and exploration. With a most unreliable–but irresistible–narrator, Carnivore is a mind-boggling adventure of the unexpected that will leave you scratching your head while wanting more.” –Terry Hong, Asian Week
“An enjoyable and memorable read, A Carnivore’s Inquiry is a smartly structured novel with a truly original narrative voice.” –Rain Taxi
“With A Carnivore’s Inquiry, [Murray] exhibits the same narrative artistry [as in The Caprices], and her exceptionally vivid and detailed prose doesn’t stoop to being overly ornate. . . . With echoes of both Poe and Patrick McGrath pervading her work, Murray essays to craft a psychologically credible portrait of mental illness.” –Jenifer Berman, Bookforum
“[An] elegant and fiercely engaging novel. . . . With deft narration and supremely elegant prose, Murray draws out the thinning margins of Katherine’s sanity.” –Felicia C. Sullivan, Small Spiral Notebook
“Pursuit of the flesh reaches prickly proportions in this seductive thriller. . . . Not for the easily queasy, this is a dark meditation on the vagaries that dwell beneath civilization’s veneer.” –Allison Block, Booklist
‘murray offers a chilling and well-constructed novel.” –Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal
Praise for The Caprices:
A winner of the 2003 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction
A Washington Post Book World “Rave”
‘murray writes stories of fierce intensity, stories that are evocative, distinct and haunting. . . . Dark and unflinching, these brimming, sometimes jagged stories endure powerfully in the reader’s memory as they reach across continents and time with precision and–in the heart of darkness–a measure of grace.” –Claire Messud, The New York Times Book Review
‘murray reveals war in a way that few writers do, and with such force and beauty and authenticity that I was astonished by this collection. . . . The Caprices is equal to the achievement of Stephen Crane.” –Gloria Emerson, Los Angeles Times
“Nine glittering stories . . . The author renders [WWII’s] aftermath in prose both unflinching and majestic.” –John Freeman, The Washington Post
“There is no denying that the collection is indeed an artistic achievement.” –Terry Hong, The Bloomsbury Review
“A shrewd, striking debut collection of nine . . . cleverly crafted tales . . . With each piece, Murray proves to be increasingly exceptional.” –Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“The two notions of war as another planet and of cognitive displacement are rendered with chance timing and shocking force. . . . Ms. Murray’s extraplanetary visions of war are stunning.” –Richard Eder, The New York Times
A Chicago Tribune Best Book of ’04
A Carnivore’s Inquiry
I am standing at the side of the highway, which is a good place because it is nowhere. The snow is crusted on the ground and more is falling. I drove out of the United States last night; I also drove out of spring and back into winter, which makes me feel as if I am driving into the past, although it’s much cleaner than the one I left behind. Canada is a country of lumberjacks and wolves, hospitable, cold, and foreign.
Beginning is always hard, especially when one’s story is not yet over. I am an only child. From my mother I inherited my dark eyes and my darker sense of humor, from my father an ability to bring things to a significant conclusion and the black Lexus S.U.V. It’s a gorgeous car with a fantastic stereo, but it makes me feel as if I’m in a fast-moving coffin. I can move at ninety miles an hour without realizing it, which is why I pulled over on the side of the road.
We are all hurtling into the future like so many unwilling comets. Sometimes I feel the need to stop, to look back before moving on. The snow is hissing in the wind and almost seems to be whispering my name–Katherine, Katherine–as if there is something great in store for me, but down the highway I see nothing but a nation plunged in darkness. As I look back to the United States I see the same thing. And why not? Our nations’ histories are raveled together, all of this great American continent conquered by trappers popping their bullets into beavers and Spaniards unsheathing their swords. Our civilization is the heart that was pulled still beating out of the heaving bosom of the New World. Am I just a product, as my mother always suggested, of this violent, bloody past?
And what of the Old World?
Europe is to my right as I stand facing north. I can see a glimmer of light flattening the horizon, a pale fire of history, which, although very distant, seems enough to keep me warm.
I remember the day of my return to the United States for its foul weather and for my first encounter with Boris. Boris was at his editor’s office then, which took him near Penn Station. I had taken the bus from the airport and then had retreated into the subway, because I was feeling both tired and nervous and–like a rabbit–felt the need to go underground. I suppose if I had thought of somewhere better to go, for example the Metropolitan Museum of Art, I might never have met Boris.
It was Columbus Day and somewhere in New York people were protesting the rape of America. I was informed of this phenomenon by two sign-toting students. The young woman carried a sign that said, COLUMBUS WAS A MURDERER, the other protestor (her boyfriend?) COLUMBUS BLOODY SUNDAY, which might have been a reference to Irish independence, bloodshed in general, or the day of the week on which Columbus arrived in the New World. I doubted that either of them was American Indian–the girl was pale and blond, the boy Jewish, Italian, Greek, Armenian, or some combination–and had therefore benefited from the conquest of the New World. Outrage leaves little room for reason. They had to be students because they had time and youth, signs and shabby clothes, all of which attested in an outward way to their moral superiority. Like me, they were waiting for a train. Unlike me, they knew where they were going.
I suppose the protestors wanted to efface Columbus’s role as discoverer, leader, romantic figure and I was tempted to remind them that the Spaniards had done that many years ago and during the explorer’s lifetime. Perhaps they should consider that our country bore the name of Amerigo Vespucci and, if they were interested in a revisionist approach, Columbus Day was more of a time for recent Sicilian and Neapolitan immigrants–the large share of Italian Americans who historically had nothing to do with the Genoese–to share their sausage and meatballs with more than the usual pride.
Columbus Day was also an occasion for me to consider my return to America after time spent in Europe. Europe at the time of Columbus was a bloody, plague-ridden plot of land. Godless too, unless one counted the Inquisition, the wholesale slaughter of Hugenots, and other such phenomena. The bloodbath in the New World was not so much a definitive act of aggression, but rather an expansion of what was going on at home. Old news. Not news at all. So rather than pondering all the bloodshed that Columbus now stood for, I felt more inclined to think of his last years. His longing to return to America. His mind tormented by a grandeur that had deserted him. I thought of myself as a friend to Columbus, someone who understood the necessary violence of discovery, an enlightened peer, maybe along the lines of a fellow discoverer–Vespucci, for example–who, no doubt, felt the loss when Columbus finally crossed over into that other borderless land, a new New World, to which we are all fated. Vespucci understood Columbus’s (or rather, Col”n’s) torments and successes, how with their caravels and galleons, Vespucci and Col”n had towed the Old World out of the Dark Ages and into the brilliant light of paradise.
I had spent some time in Florence, Vespucci’s home town, which added to my feelings of kinship. In Europe I’d been swept up by a sense of anachronism. While peering in the long glass window of a shoe store where the latest fashions were displayed, one could find the shoes obscured by the reflection of the Duomo. At night, alone on the terrace of the Uffizi, it was as easy to picture assassins with jeweled daggers as the actual Moroccan hash dealers. It was as if, in Florence, time performed no function, as opposed to Manhattan, where here, in the subway system, the notion of Dutch traders and foolish Indians accepting glass beads seemed not only distant but improbable. There’s a saying, “time functions to prevent everything from happening at once,” and although I can’t remember who said it, I have a lingering suspicion that it was an American. I checked my watch to see the time, and noted, with some amusement, that it was still set to the time in Italy.
I wonder how Vespucci felt when he learned of his old friend’s death. Perhaps relief, because he would no longer have to petition the king on Col”n’s behalf. Perhaps a certain sad pride at having known him in his prime.
I picture Vespucci going to his chair by the window with a mug of the new coffee, for which he has developed a suspicious dependence much like others for wine. No doubt Vespucci thinks the letter from his friend is full of complaints about King Ferdinand, how once again his petition to be reinstated as governor of Hispaniola has been denied. Amerigo, set the king straight. I am the rightful governor of the Indies. Since Col”n still insists that Hispaniola is in Asia. If Hispaniola is indeed in Asia, which is a very old world, why does Col”n feel the outrage of someone robbed of his discovery?
What might have been a source of antagonism between Col”n and Vespucci could well have been the basis of their friendship. Wasn’t Col”n’s childish willfulness in the face of reason endearing? Still, being Col”n’s friend and Pilot Major of Spain put Vespucci in a difficult position. But he would fire off a letter to the king. Think of all Col”n has done in the name of Spain. Although the king would never reinstate Col”n as governor.
The king himself had removed Col”n from his post.
The king had ordered Col”n shipped back to Spain in a cocoon of chains.
The king had condemned Col”n to spend his final years haunting the streets of Seville, a quiet end–tragic, even–for a man who wanted to keep fighting with the Indians, digging for gold.
But Vespucci reads that the letter is not from Cristobal, but from his son, Fernando. And Vespucci sadly realizes that Fernando could only have one reason to write him.
. . . from gout on May 20 of this year, 1506. As you were his good friend and even patron I do not need to list for you the accomplishments of his life which, although an august fifty-four years, seems brief for a man of such potential . . .
The day is ending in a bath of golden light and birds swoop energetically close to the margin of land and sky, birds leaving trails across the blue: the coastline of the fields, the promontories of the hills, the isthmus of the solitary tower, the delta of the pine-choked valley. In his mind Vespucci sees the edges of the world gathered together like the corners of a sheet, he and Col”n weaving them together. What had once been the broad, virginal Pacific is now threaded over by the paths of a dozen caravels crossing and crossing, so that the spume of one vessel is soon laced over by the wake of another. The world is now round. The world is now small. Vespucci had looked through a telescope, Col”n down the length of a musket, but they had worked together–partners in a grand enterprise.
I was startled then by the high-pitched screech of a train on the track behind me. The two protesters were involved in a deep, tongue-probing kiss. Protest was, I suppose, sexy. They might have missed their train, but they didn’t seem to care. Did they care about anything, Columbus included? Columbus had willed Hispaniola into being, planting Europeans into the New World like saplings, leaving a bristling forest. Although he was old when he arrived at court–forty-two, his once red hair already drained of color–people believed in him. Hadn’t Isabella given him three ships? Hadn’t Vespucci used his ties with the Medici to finance part of his venture? Columbus’s faith in himself, in his dreams, was unshakable. Four days before the sighting of Hispaniola there was a rebellion. The men were terrified that they would go sailing off the edge of the earth. But Columbus had asked them to be patient, probably with a loaded musket, and they struck land. Who cared where it was–what it was–as long as it wasn’t populated by dragons, as long as it didn’t terminate in a bottomless, frothing waterfall?
Shouldn’t this be what we consider on Columbus Day?
A year before Col”n’s death, he met with Vespucci and they shared a meal. This must have been an awkward dinner, because it followed yet another failed petition for the governorship of Hispaniola. This was the last time the two explorers met. I imagine that Col”n did not look well. He had been suffering from gout for the past seven years. Perhaps Vespucci saw the end coming. Perhaps he saw it in Col”n’s eyes, in his crumbling strength.
I imagine Col”n eyeing Vespucci in a petulant way. He envies Vespucci’s position. “What have you been doing?” he asks.
“You know what I have been doing.”
‘maps and stars,” says Col”n.
“Cosmography and astronomy,” corrects Vespucci.
“You bumped into the Indies because you were looking up at the sky. You didn’t see where you were going. You think, “What’s this doing here? Must be something new.””
“The world is too large for that to be Asia,” says Vespucci.
“Because of your stars, you say that. But I say that the Indians make it clear that we have reached Asia.”
Then maybe Vespucci stops. He does not know what is kindness now. Should he argue to show that he still values what Col”n has to say? Should he accept the explorer’s opinion out of respect? “I trust my equations,” says Vespucci. “You trust your eyes.”
“Who cares what is true?” says Col”n. “You have the king’s ear.”
The two friends have differences that run deep. Vespucci, a Florentine, is a nobleman. Educated. Privileged. Urbane. Col”n springs from Genoa, the son of a weaver. He is a self-made merchant from the city of commerce.
“You like paintings. You like poems. You like the stars. But I . . .” Here Col”n thumps his chest with his fingers, “I sailed in the name of Spain.”
Vespucci looks at his friend, at the gravy on his shirt. “Crist”bal, I sailed in the name of Spain.”
“No, you sailed for yourself.”
“To learn. That’s not for myself. That’s for everyone.” Vespucci cannot understand Col”n’s stubbornness. Cosmography is exploration. Knowledge isn’t any colder or deader than the stars burning and spitting in the black fabric of the night sky. Vespucci is a romantic himself. How could one not be in thrall to the progression of degrees, the web of longitude and latitude, the brief embrace of planet and star? His life is lived in fifteen degrees per hour, his interest in the ink divining land from water, the equatorial circumference of the earth. Circumference. At least both men believe in that, even though claiming that the new continent was the Indies meant the earth was sucked in at the waist, like a peanut.
“I didn’t sail for Spain,” says Col”n. He laughs with Vespucci. “I sailed for me. To be the first.”
But what had they sailed for? Had they sailed to kill off the Indians? Had they sailed to make way for European-style commerce? From where I stood–subway platform, twenty-first century–it was not clear.
“We sailed for spices,” says Vespucci. “For money. We sailed because the Queen with her crazy Inquisition has driven all the Jews out of Spain and there are no more merchants. We sailed because the Turks slaughter our knights and we cannot go east by land.” Vespucci looks disdainfully at his friend’s pork. At the pigeon, which he has ordered but not touched. “We sailed because the meat we eat is rotten and we must mask this with cinnamon from Ceylon, pepper from India, and clove from Zanzibar.”
“Are you saying we sailed in the name of rotten meat?”
“Perhaps.” Vespucci smiles. “Rather than spice, let there be fresh meat in your Indies.”
And here I thought of an Indian skirted in leaves, a full head shorter than Vespucci, shown in neatly delineated (and anatomically impossible) profile offering the explorer a hot dog. Or perhaps a knish. Or a falafel. Some honeyed peanuts. A pretzel. Or perhaps a neon-colored bag of cotton candy. Because if nothing else, the New World was full of food. I could see the people in the train station shoving handfuls of the convenient fodder into their mouths. And I realized that this was one of the many definitions of American: one who can achieve the needs of his or her appetite. This is what exploration had opened up the door to. Not only widespread slaughter, but the necessary accompaniment of gorging. Of course there were no hot dogs at the time of Columbus and Vespucci, not on Hispaniola, not in Brazil, nowhere. In fact, the explorers brought famine along with them–the hunger of the Old World into seemingly abundant paradise.
“I ate lizards,” says Col”n. “I ate a dog. It didn’t bark, but it was still a dog.” Col”n smiles wryly. “But there is a kind of fresh meat.”
Vespucci laughs. “They eat their enemies. So what?”
“You told me,” says Col”n, “that at the mouth of that great river, you spoke to a man who had eaten three hundred men.”
“He had many enemies.” Vespucci thinks. “And now they have more.”
“We are their enemies?” Col”n waves Vespucci off. “They hate us now, but we will change their minds.”
“I have little faith in that,” says Vespucci. “Your Indians pepper us with their arrows. The drumsong and howling is hardly done in gratitude.”
“Once the Indians are civilized, they will see what we have done for them.”
‘such generosity,” says Vespucci. “When I was at the court of Louis XI the Hugenots were rioting in the streets. The rebellion was put down. And after, the bodies of the Huguenots were butchered and sold as meat.” Vespucci thinks for a moment and then smiles. ‘maybe you should go civilize the Parisians.”
‘maybe I should,” Col”n laughs. “But there is nothing noble in that.”
“Noble?” questions Vespucci.
“We are helping the Indians,” says Col”n. “We are their saviors. They have no faith. We give them our God. We give them medicine.”
“We give them disease. It is our duty to cure it.”
As usual, Col”n noted, Vespucci bordered on sacrilege.
“We give them guns,” says Vespucci, “but only the barrel.”
“Amerigo,” Col”n says in an almost fatherly way, “we give them civilization.”
“There is no civilization,” says Vespucci. “There is no New World.”
“Then you agree that Hispaniola is in Asia?”
“No, Crist”bal.” And Vespucci smiles and pats his friend’s arm. “I say Hispaniola is in Europe.”
Or maybe Vespucci said nothing of the sort. Maybe Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci argued and came to no agreement, or agreed that the Indians were all cannibals and worthy of condemnation, and, worse, conversion. Or maybe they ate in silence, shoveling the undistinguished food into their mouths without conversation, the hours spent waiting for an audience with the king having left them with a profound hunger.
What is the value of them arguing anyway? Vespucci and Columbus come to us as bedfellows, parts of a whole. History. Europe. Exploration. Colonization. America. The two discoverers are inseparable and we can no more divorce reasonable Vespucci from aggressive Columbus than we can live in thrall to intellect apart from appetite.
A train pulled in and the two protesting students got on with their signs. As they boarded, an old lady with gray curls was struck on the head, which I thought was a rather violent act. I might have even called the protesters’ attention to it, but they were gone, barreling back into the twenty-first century, and it was time for me too to get going. I saw Boris on the platform then. I didn’t recognize him at first, but thought perhaps I might have met him once, so I watched him quietly, unseen, from behind a pillar.
The city was shrouded in cloud and Boris was in a dark state. He stood armed with nothing but his green umbrella, battling a deep depression, which today he attributed to the rain. Boris looked up at life from the bottom of this mood as if he were trapped in a well–the view was limited and anything worthwhile seemed a remote possibility. People were belting him about the ribs with book bags; they were looking at the space on the wall behind him. He was invisible, nonexistent. Here in this tunnel there was no oxygen, only dirty light and the deep rumbling of the train. It was as though he were in a vast intestine and, beyond the tunnel’s bend, was a stomach about to purge itself. He took a pack of Rolaids from his pocket and consumed five. Boris glanced around nervously. He thought he must have been waiting a quarter of an hour at least, when it had only been five minutes.
I watched him from behind the pillar. The train arrived.
Boris seated himself and I sat next to him, in the only available seat. I could have stood, but I was tired from a combination of jet lag and the six demi-bottles of Chianti, courtesy of Alitalia.
We sat shoulder to shoulder with our eyes directed forward. There was a smell on Boris like pipe tobacco, but I detected no smoke. He breathed through his nose, which was so clotted with springy hair, little tendrils escaping his nostrils, that his breath whistled. He had his legs crossed at the ankles and when the train lurched, his knee bumped mine. Every now and then he would push his glasses up his nose with his thumb.
I recognized him then.
On the airplane I had lifted a woman’s Vanity Fair when she got up to use the restroom. On her return, she had watched me read it with an ineffectual outrage, but it could have been my magazine, so there really wasn’t anything she could do about it. Boris had been in the “Night Table Reading” section. He was listed as the author of Soulless Man. He was reading A Man without Qualities in the original German, which I suppose is something like Eine Man Ohne Qualities.
Boris caught me eyeing him and began rummaging around in his leather bag. He took out a magazine, plain pages, and began reading it intently.
“What are you reading?” I asked.
Boris looked over, annoyed.
“It is an Author’s Guild magazine. Not of interest to most people.”
“You’re Boris Naryshkin, aren’t you?” I said.
“Yes, I am.” He was surprised.
“I’m Katherine. I saw you once in a magazine.”
“Which magazine was that?”
“I can’t remember,” I lied. “It was some time ago.”
“What do you know about me?” he said.
“You write depressing books.”
“Have you read any of my books?”
“No. But I can tell that they’re depressing.”
“How can you tell?”
“By the way you sit.”
Boris smiled. ‘my editor says much the same thing and he has read everything.”
There was an awkward pause.
“Who do you identify with, Vespucci or Columbus?” I asked.
“Today?” said Boris. “Columbus.”
“Because I am not well-liked.”
“I like you.”
“You don’t know me.”
“It’s much easier to like people you don’t know.”
Boris, off-guard, smiled.
“You make your money depressing people?”
Boris nodded slowly.
“What a relief,” I said. “I just got back from Italy today. I spent the last year with men on vacation. Light-hearted men. Actually, they were shallow, which I suppose doesn’t exclude being heavy of heart. I can’t picture any of them depressed, or in a deep depression. Maybe a shallow depression.”
“A dimple,” said Boris.
“What?” I said.
‘dimple could be a word that means shallow depression.”
‘so instead of getting depressed, these people get dimples?”
“Yes,” said Boris.
There was a moment of silence.
“Would you be interested in joining me for dinner?” he asked.
“I’d be delighted,” I replied.
Boris took me out to his favorite restaurant for some northern Italian food. I ordered a hare ragout. It came with salted gnocchi and a salad of wilted arugula and radicchio. Boris ordered something else, I’m not sure what, but he made a great deal of noise while he ate it. The wine was a predictable Chianti. Boris made a big show of sending back a bottle. I’m sure now that the wine that followed tasted exactly the same as the wine he refused. There was no conversation for a couple of minutes. I really didn’t know what to say. I was lost in my thoughts. Bored on the plane, I’d tried to picture what man my father would like to see me with least. I thought of the usual suspects: addict, musician, performance artist, his business partner. But Boris had to be the worst of them all–the European intellectual who would find my father inferior. I drank the wine down and poured myself another glass.
“You like the wine?” he asked.
“Oh yes. It’s wonderful,” I said. “What do you think they did with the bottle you sent back?”
“I think they drink it,” said Boris.
“I’m pleased to hear that.”
“It is just a theory,” said Boris. “Why does it please you?”
“I’d hate to see it go to waste.”
“Even if it was bad?”
“Your vinegar, another man’s ambrosia,” I said, startled by the words, sure I must have heard them somewhere before.
“You are a relativist.”
I wasn’t sure what he meant. “Yes,” I said. “Is that bad?”
‘morally,” said Boris, without much conviction. He smiled. “How old are you?”
I smiled. “I’m twenty-two.”
“Why were you in Italy?”
“You don’t need a good reason to go to Italy. Everyone should go to Italy. Why aren’t you in Italy?”
“Because there is no money there, at least not for me.” Boris eyed me suspiciously. “Why did you come back?”
I pushed my ragout con lepre around my plate. “I got sick of the food,” I said and Boris smiled.
Boris had left Russia sometime in the seventies. I pictured Boris as looking much the same only slimmer, with more hair, wearing brown polyester pants. It was easy to convince the Americans–who hated the Russian government–that everyone had some pressing reason to escape. Some people did. Boris didn’t. He thought his opportunities were better in America. And they were.
“I learned English quickly because I speak French,” Boris said.
‘don’t you miss Russia?”
“No,” he said.
‘don’t you miss your family?”
‘most of them are dead. Here, I have started a new life. Isn’t that what America is for?”
‘sure, if you’re not American.”
Boris laughed again. “You make me laugh,” he said, as if it were a problem. He shifted his weight in the chair and looked around the room. He seemed nervous that someone would see us, but there weren’t that many people eating. It was early, around seven, too early to eat in the city. There was one large party, a family, complete with two grandparents, three middle-aged men, brothers, who all looked alike although slightly balder, fatter, or grayer than one another. There were three anxious wives to go with the brothers, one applying lipstick, the other two with chairs turned inward, wrapped up in some gossip. The table was littered with wine bottles and two small boys were hiding under the table hatching a conspiracy. At another table a woman picked at a salad while hammering away at her laptop computer. She looked like a lawyer. The sounds were all muffled and the dim light made every table seem strangely isolated, as if we weren’t really there. I wondered if the other diners felt the same way or if it was just my jet lag. I looked back at Boris and was surprised to see him there. He was done with dinner, done with the bread, and looked at me with frank suspicion.
“Tell me about Russia,” I said.
“What is there to tell?”
“You’re a writer,” I said. “Tell me a story.”
Boris regarded me closely then nodded to himself. He pushed back from the table and crossed his legs. “Once, when I was a small boy on vacation in Georgia, there was a place on the mountain,” he showed me the shoulder-height mountain, “where they did experiments on monkeys and apes. I was driving with my family on the road near the mountain. I don’t know how it happened, but all the animals had escaped. There were baboons running here and there, so we stopped the car. All of a sudden there is this, what is this, the big red one . . .”
“. . . on the hood of my father’s car. He got up there and we stopped and he masturbated for half an hour. My mother was in the car. She covered my eyes. My grandmother was in the car. She started to pray.”
“Then what happened?”
“That’s the story. After that, it is not so interesting. We drive home. We read newspapers and brush our teeth.” Boris shrugged. “I grow up and come to America.”
“I die. I am buried and no one comes to my funeral. All my acquaintances say that I was a bastard and that they are happy now without me.”
“Wow,” I said, “that’s a great story. Tell me another.”
“First dessert.” Boris said. He glanced down at the dessert menu.
“Tiramusu?” I suggested.
He shook his head. “Not here. Here, we eat zuppa Inglese.” Boris raised his hand for no waiter in particular. “You tell me a story.”
‘me? About what?”
“No,” I said. “I’ll tell you about her.” I looked over at the woman with her laptop. ‘she’s not really working. She’s alone and doesn’t want to look stupid. She’s typing, “How stupid it is to be alone. I make two hundred thousand dollars a year. You’d think I could find someone to eat dinner with me.” She types that over and over.”
“That’s not a story,” said Boris.
“I’m not a writer. Tell me more about Russia.”
“Why this interest in Russia? Russia is just like America only colder and with less money.” The waiter came over and Boris ordered the zuppa, some coffee, some dessert wine.
“Please,” I said.
He nodded again and shrugged as if defeated. He took the last of the bread and with his mouth full said, ‘my great uncle Alexei was covered with violent scars.”
‘scars? How do you know they were violent?” I asked.
Boris smiled in a patronizing way. ‘scars like this you don’t get from falling off your bicycle.”
“How did he get the scars?”
“From gunshots, from bayonets.” Boris ran his finger around the rim of his wine glass. “He did not say where he got these wounds.”
“But didn’t you know?”
“He was a quiet man. We would holiday together. There was a house by a lake,” said Boris. “He had strange habits.”
“What strange habits?”
“Uncle Alexei,” said Boris, ‘drank the still-warm blood drained from the necks of cows.”
“Because of his blood sickness.”
“Blood sickness? You mean hemophilia?”
‘maybe. He never said.”
‘drinking cow’s blood helped him?”
“Only when he drank it warm.”
“That’s not a story,” I said.
Boris shrugged and turned his attention to dessert.
I closed my eyes and pictured Uncle Alexei wrapping his aristocratic fingers around a clay cup filled with steaming blood. He was a thin man in his late sixties. His hair was white and carefully parted. His beard was trimmed to a refined point. He wore no shirt, but long woolen underwear. His back was pocked with scars. These oval-shaped scars had edges of raised, pink skin. The centers were sunken and the effect was that the man’s back was covered with two dozen unblinking eyes. His white skin had a bluish glow. His mouth was fine and his lips were thin and red. He brought the cup to his mouth and drained the blood, then fell back into his low chair. His eyes grew drowsy and one pale hand slipped to the floor, the palm tantalizingly open and upward.
“What are you thinking?” asked Boris.
“I think,” I said, “that you’re trying to seduce me.”
Boris pondered this. ‘do you want to be seduced?” he asked.
“Possibly,” I said. ‘do you have anything planned for this evening?”
I accepted Boris’s invitation to go back to his apartment for a glass of wine. On the walk home, I was still sober. I could feel that start of fall, an edge in the warm evening air. I held Boris’s arm, because he was stumbling a little, although he was unaware of it. He was talking about European philosophers, scholars, and writers, all of whom were his good friends, all of whom I was hearing of for the first time.
“You are very pretty,” he said. I took the keys from his hand and quickly unlocked the door.
Boris disappeared into the bedroom. The bathroom was off it and I could hear first Boris’s thundering urination and then a violent throat-clearing. I poured myself another drink and took off my shoes. I was sitting there patiently, with my feet on the sofa and my head on my knees, when Boris appeared at the threshold of the living room. He was solidly naked, which was surprising, although not that surprising. Boris was stocky and strong. He had wide feet with a high arch and an impressive spread of toes. Reddish hair sprouted from the tops of his feet and laced up his trunk-like legs, except for two or three inches of bare skin where his thighs met his groin. A street lamp through the open window illuminated a thick, blue penis lying like a robin’s egg in a nest of hair. Boris’s belly was round and hard, the belly of a satyr. His breasts were plump and slantwise on his chest.
‘do you mind if I finish my drink?” I said.
“No,” said Boris, now self-conscious. “Take your time.”
I was still weak, recovering from a flu that I’d picked up in Italy the weeks before my return to the States. I’d been in Rimini, which was on the east coast, just a short hop from Ravenna. Rimini, at the end of tourist season, had been moving into hibernation. Everything was disappearing: the noisy children, the bare-breasted grandmothers, the frutti di mare, and–most importantly–the vacationing men. I had struck up a relationship with a huge and handsome construction worker named Pietro, who was staying in a cheap room above the bar I frequented. Pietro returned from visiting his wife, who lived in the suburbs of Florence, to find that I had moved in. He was patient with my illness, even when I broke out in a patchy rash. I thought my skin was splitting and that some new me–although it looked remarkably like the old me–was emerging. I spent ten days in his room above the bar eating soft pasta with eggs and chicken soup, which Pietro made himself in the rooming house kitchen.
“What will you do when you are not sick?” he asked me.
“I don’t know, Pietro. Maybe I can move in with you and your wife. I could be your housekeeper.”
“You are not clean,” he said smiling. “Your clothes on the floor, hair in the sink.”
“I could be your cook,” I said.
Pietro shrugged. ‘my wife makes good food. You don’t. You don’t even eat.”
“You want me to leave.”
“I,” said Pietro, “want you to be happy, not small happy,” he gestured around the room–the cot, the sink in the corner, the overflowing ashtray–”but big happy.”
“Like you and your wife?”
I can’t say that Boris made me feel “big happy,” but I did feel safe. I had terrible nightmares–blood and bone dreams, where faces torn out of the walls were coming at me–but Boris’s snoring always woke me up before I had to see my nightmare through to its conclusion. I slept less than I ever had, maybe four hours a night. My mother had the same sleeping habits, a result of her illness. When she’d married my father she was still all right–he said normal, although I doubted that–but once she got sick, her sleeping patterns became erratic. I remember her, in the time before the pills, always being awake. If I got up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom I’d see the light on in the living room and hear the television–sitcom laughter, muffled narration–or she’d be reading. Maybe now my mother was willing me to have the education that I’d somehow failed at or that had somehow failed me. Boris had a lot of books and I sat in the living room waiting for the sun to rise, reading and reading. Bleak House. The Gulag Archipelago. Birth of the Modern.
I had never been a good student, although I’d shown enough intelligence to frustrate my teachers. In literature, my papers lacked focus and I had a bad habit of referring to characters–what on earth does Anna Sergeyevna see in Gurov?–as if they were my acquaintances. In art history I was determined to pursue the course of study with no attention to dates, although a complex chronological scheme was clear to me. In history, I remembered anecdotes and family trees with surprising precision; in class I often found myself telling stories of this monarch’s sexual dalliances and the odd, three-toed offspring that somehow resulted. The sciences all seemed to be scheduled in the early morning. Philosophy was populated by abstract, sincere, unattractive boys and equally unattractive, aggressive girls. I displayed great enthusiasm for the visual arts, equaled only by an absence of talent. I tried drama. People said I had a flair for the dramatic and I thought I could bring my G.P.A. up to the 2.0 necessary to continue, but I hated all the other students. I spent entire class periods in the costume room brushing the wigs affectionately. I failed and failed and failed. Packed up my things, tried elsewhere, helped a boyfriend sell coke at parties, and was asked to leave.
After all this, I still tried to nurture the fantasy that college had been wonderful for me, that I’d been part of a super group of girls, but when I tried to remember them, my imagination replaced the Bryn and Erica and Jasmine, who I had actually known, with a group of giggling, cigarette-pants-wearing coeds, who all looked like Sandra Dee. I really had no friends to speak of and I’m sure it was my fault.
My mother always told me that friends were overrated. I had never known her to have one, other than me, and despite the fact that she had a befuddled mind (diagnosed) and a slew of drugs in her blood (prescribed) I still trusted her. In fact, my mother was the only person I trusted and after a year in Italy, although I’d been safe from her illness and her slow retreat from life, I missed her. But now, back in the States, I found myself unwilling to see her. She was still in the hospital, unless some miracle of well-being had happened in my absence. In a way I liked that. I could find her. I would go and see her soon. As soon as I figured out how to get to her without involving Boris, as soon as I could make peace with seeing my father or, more likely, find a way to my mother that did not involve going through him. I hadn’t really made a success of my time in Italy and although I personally felt that success was overrated, my father did not. I was his one failed investment and I bothered him.
Italy had ostensibly been a chance for me to pursue my interest in art. I was one of those people who made up for what she lacked in talent with her father’s money. And my father liked the idea of my studying art in Italy far more than my working at a local restaurant while trying to get credit at South Shore Community College. So he anted up. And I took off after the first humiliating day of life drawing, spent sketching a nude Florentine named Davido, who I managed to master in other ways.
I tried to call my mother a couple of times, struggling with pounds of gittoni at public phones, but had never been able to get through. The first time, the nurse had tried to put my father on, and I’d hung up. Another time the nurse didn’t know who my mother was and when she was trying to figure out where she’d been moved, my stack of phone tokens ran out. Things like that will wear you down, make a country lose its charm. Also, being American was a full-time occupation, exhausting and false. America was named for an Italian, so shouldn’t there have been some sort of easy sisterhood between the two countries? There was not. I wondered how Vespucci would have felt if he knew that his name would be attached not only to the wondrous new continent, but also to hamburgers, blue jeans, rock-and-roll, and loud men who videotaped themselves while walking backward up the steps of the Uffizi. I constantly found myself playing Jean Seberg to a host of unlikely Jean-Paul Belmondos and this had made me want to go home. But here, with Boris, wasn’t I doing the same thing?
“Boris,” I asked, ‘do you like Faulkner?”
“Liking is irrelevant,” he said. “I know Faulkner.”
Sometimes he thought he was Faulkner.
I had good days and I had bad days. Sometimes my headaches knocked me out for hours. Sometimes they kept me up. I wandered around the apartment, spent hours looking at his shelves and all his collectibles–the first editions and the special bookcase by the stereo that he reserved for the hundreds of opera librettos that, he told me, comprised the most extensive private libretto collection in the Americas. All this pacing ought to have made me stir-crazy, but I still felt under the weather. Boris–to undercut my concern–bought me some fancy iron supplements that came with an eyedropper.
He said, “Take it with orange juice.” Boris was occupied with his new writing project, a novel called The Little Vagrant. It was best for him to assume I was in good health and so that’s how it was. He actually found my pallor appealing.
He told me, “In the old days, women drank arsenic to look like that.” Then he disappeared back into his study. He was there from about eight in the morning until four in the afternoon. I made him sandwiches and brought them in, but he didn’t want to talk. He usually yelled at me, “Leave it. Leave it.” But if I didn’t bring him lunch, he’d ask me if I was trying to starve him. At night, he read.
At the time, I had a weird affection for Boris, for everything about him. Even the way he looked. The hair on his chest and shoulders was soft and gray, like cobwebs. His teeth were yellowed and crossed in the front. When he smiled, his mouth pulled downward, which made him look in pain, bothered by the possibility of happiness. The top of his head was completely bald, but the hair that stretched around it–the foothill vegetation–sprouted wildly. There were shallow, polished lines on his forehead, but his face still looked fresh and pink, like a baby’s. He had soft, pudgy hands with short fingers. He gestured with these hands, stretching them into the space between us with splayed fingers, as if he were presenting me with two starfish. With these hands, he reached out to me. With these hands, he fended me off.
With a fifty-dollar bill in his hand, he was almost handsome.
We were content and amicable, although after the first month I became aware of discord–an abstracted, patient discord–that was hovering around the apartment just as the ghost of Boris’s old pipe-smoking habit lurked in the rugs. To make myself useful, I had started organizing his libretto collection but soon found myself being drawn into their pages. Quick melodrama. Almost instant gratification. Boris was on the cold side, but I didn’t take this personally. Boris was not even warm with himself. Joy was not elusive, it was irrelevant. Boris considered himself an Epicurean, but anything past base sensual stimulation–a good cheese, Callas singing “La Wally” –was beyond his capacity for enjoyment. He did not know how to enjoy himself. He had learned what was enjoyable by studying others and took pride in this, since it was intellectual. One Thursday night he took me to the opera–Madame Butterfly–which was a great three-hour opportunity for him to meditate on the discomfort of his seat. He thought he might have hemorrhoids. While the soprano was still in the “di” of “Un bel di” he turned to me and said, ‘she’s weak in the high register.”
People peered over their opera glasses at him and he scowled back. He ruffled noisily through his score, although he couldn’t read music.
‘shut up, Boris,” I whispered. I rested my head against the scratchy wool of his jacket and fell asleep. I didn’t know how else to deal with him when he was aggravated. I didn’t want to make a scene. I couldn’t imagine anyone being able to sustain a relationship with Boris, then I realized that I was doing just that and it surprised me.
Copyright ” 2004 by Sabina Murray. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.
Readers’ Guide: A Carnivore’s Inquiry
1. If a fable can be seen as metaphors in action, is there a way the whole novel can be read metaphorically? Is Murray suggesting something dark about American society? How would the first two chapters support this idea? And look at Katherine’s pronouncements on her money-making father and his need for power and control over “a populace debilitated by the appetites of the strong” (p. 286).
2. How does Murray’s first epigraph set up important issues in the novel? “The inhabitants seem to live in that Golden World of which old writers speak so much, wherein men lived simply and innocently without enforcement of laws, without quarrelling, judges and libels, content only to satisfy nature” (deAnghera, Decades de Orbe Novo). Ideas about the nature of man abound in the book. What are some of the questions about civilization and primitivism? About instinct? Passion? What is suggested about the power of a human being to exercise control over desires?
How is Katherine depicted? Do you find her intelligent and canny? Do you enjoy her as a narrator? Do you find her funny or charming? Does she show any sense of morality or conscience? What is her sense of self? How does she think other people see her?
4. Katherine describes herself as a child who raised herself on books. “I, in deference to my family’s code, was silent to the point of being invisible” (p. 81). Would you say she is in some stage of arrested development? “I had a hard time saying no to myself ” (p. 95). How do we see this self-gratification in different ways in the novel? ‘sometimes you want to stop doing something, but it’s not enough to want to stop. Something else has to happen” (p. 92).
5. How has Katherine been raised by her parents? ‘my mother had bought me close to thirty gifts, all brightly colored and expensive” (p. 82). Opening presents and exclaiming over all this excess is an ordeal for the child as she tries to please her mother. “All the while I was longing to escape” (p. 82). How is Katherine’s whole life a longing to escape? From her quitting college, trace her escapes from places and relationships. Do you think any person or place could have held Katherine? Why or why not? What are her thoughts about freedom (see p. 294)?
6. Have death and violence always been linked in Katherine’s mind? We note her quick, effective brutality in killing the rat: “I had broken its head in, crushing the skull that fragmented with an audible crunch. I was out of breath. It couldn’t have taken more than two seconds. “Kill it,” I said. “Kill it” ” (p. 93). (How does Arthur react here?) On the other hand, she exhumed her dead cat just to hold it. “I think I was trying to prepare for (or anesthetize myself against) death –mine, my mother’s, anyone’s’ (p. 83). She tells us, “As a child, I knew death was present in our house, the bogeyman beneath my bed not threatening me, but menacing my mother” (p. 108). Just as Katherine wants to “be” her mother, does it seem she has incorporated the threat of death on her mother’s behalf?
7. This is a book of breathtaking Gothic horror. Did you find that the rampant carnage lost its power to shock due to repetition? Which scenes did you find most disturbing?
8. How do the digressions influence the novel? As Katherine plunges into stories of murder and cannibalism, she loses herself in a kind of ecstasy. What is she seeking in the tales? Is it her mother’s imprinting from early childhood? Even her father gives her Hansel and Gretel for her sixth birthday, perhaps, she thinks, as a message for his disturbing daughter “who crouched in the corners like a spider” (p. 82).
9. Which of the digressions did you find most enlightening . . . or terrifying? Gericault’s The Raft of the Medusa her mother’s favorite painting? The story of the Donner Party? Katherine’s school paper explored the notion of hunger. “Hunger cannot be escaped because hunger isn’t in the Sierras . . . the soul is not what defines us as people, but this bottomless hunger. The hunger is our soul” (p. 205). Discuss this idea, as well as Katherine’s loneliness as a child and her feeling closest to her mother when reading stories of cannibalism. Talk about some of the other well-researched stories from folklore or literature, such as ones from Dante or Melville. Others?
10. How does the folk tale of Bisclavaret relate to Arthur’s abrupt departure (see chapter 27)? Recall that it was Katherine’s mother’s favorite story, especially the idea that “not all wolves were men” (p. 271). Why would that idea appeal particularly to Katherine and her mother?
11. What are the connections for Katherine between headaches, alcohol, sex, and further mayhem? Are there predictors you begin to recognize? Does sex ever have to do with love for Katherine, or is it just another hunger? What is suggested about outer edges of passion where love or sex and violence intersect?
12. When Katherine finds that her roommate has hanged herself, how does she react (see p. 221)? What are her thoughts on survival here? What does she mean when she says that “the weak make way for the strong” (p. 221)? Are there ever times in the book when Katherine feels definitively either weak or strong? Is she a rabbit? Or a wolf?
13. What are your reactions to the string of men in Katherine’s life? Are these characters clearly differentiated? How does Arthur differ from the others? Is he somehow more attentive? Or more wary? What is his role in tightening the tension of the novel as a thriller? Does his growing knowledge parallel that of the reader? Of Katherine?
14. How would the book change if the story were told chronologically? Does the interweaving of past events, having an almost cubist effect of giving different elements equal weight, tell us something about Katherine’s mental state? Does the past sometimes seem even more real than the present in her mind?
15. What is the story of the dogwood earrings? How do they give a concrete clue about the novel (see pp. 106, 276, and 285)?
16. Do you see Katherine as the victim of corrupted lands, of paradise lost? A blighted past? Or is it she herself who is the pollutant (see p. 217 for her own quandaries)?
17. What psychological reasons might explain Katherine’s obsession with cannibalism? Her own tales, unlike the historical ones, are not about actual, physical hunger. Freud proposed that flesh eating might relate to a longing for a return to the breast in infancy to fill a primal cavity. Is it likely Katherine was deprived of nurturing early on, as well as later? Has she ever been able to dismiss or overcome her unmet needs from a cold, controlling father?
18. What do you think has happened at the end? Will the pattern change? Does she have real hope of release? Does the first chapter give reliable clues? Has Katherine been writing her own story into the myths of cannibalism? Could you reread the novel as a nightmare house of mirrors? Do we have any sense of objective truth in this complex work of tales within tales? How in the end do you assess Katherine as narrator?