Review: The Virgin of Flames by Chris Abani
Title: The Virgin of Flames
Author: Abani, Chris
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fiction, General
Publisher / Year: Penguin / 2007
Source: Amazon Kindle store
Why I Read It: I can’t recall where I first heard of Abani…
Date Read: 11/07/11
I feel like this is the book that James Frey was trying to write about Los Angelos with Bright Shiny Morning. I feel this is the book that Teju Cole was trying to write with his wanderings of New York City in Open City. This story follows Black, a 36-year-old man who is struggling to figure out who he is and find some kind of meaningful path for his life to take.
Black was born to an Igbo father in Los Angelos who worked as a scientist for NASA and never had time for him, and who never returned from Vietnam when Black was seven. Black’s mother was Salvadoran and after his father was declared MIA and deceased she went religious and crazy, forcing Black to pray constantly for miracles and for sightings of the virgin of Guadalupe. She punished and beat him for what she said were his sins – namely being born and being her sin. She died when he was 15. Black can remember his parents having screaming fights and his father beating his mother.
Needless to say he did not have a good childhood and is now trying to exorcise his childhood demons and move forward. He is constantly reminded of his mother and his father in some ways and he feels they are ghosts which are still affecting his life. In a conversation with his roommate Iggy she explains that “Ghosts are the things, the shapes we make with our memories” and then says, in location 577, of the ghosts that we pay attention to:
They are visible, brooding dark clouds that we drag around with us like reluctant sulky children. We feed them and they grow big and their haunting dominates our lives. We love them and we hate them and we are always measuring them for a coffin, yet we cannot let them die.
And through the story as we follow Black, an artist who does odd jobs to make what little money he has and spends most of his time brooding or painting huge murals on the walls along the rivers in East LA, brooding and thinking and trying to live. We can tell he is slightly unhinged and more than a little crazy. He is being stalked by the angel Gabriel who appears either as a fifteen foot angel or a pigeon. His moods swing erratically and a number of times he contemplates suicide. Overall he has two huge obsessions – the virgin and his childhood. He is also obsessed with Sweet Pie, a trans* stripper.
Black is confused about his identity and we see him struggling to figure out who he is both in terms of how he was raised but also in terms of which identity to take on. Being biracial he has always struggled with this and it has always given him trouble. Black additionally was raised for the first six years of his life as a girl, apparently because of some curse in his father’s family. He doesn’t remember this but does remember trying to wear his mother’s dresses at different points in his life. Now he is struggling with his gender and sexual identity, not sure who he is or how he feels most comfortable.
He says at one point, in location 1911:
It seemed, though, that those with a clear sense of the past, of identity, were always so eager to bury it and move on, to reinvent themselves. What a luxury, he thought, to choose your own suffering.
I really liked the writing in this book which was slightly experimental and not always straightforward. It flowed and made the story seem almost magical. One thing that I didn’t like was how it was written in the third person limited, following Black, but all of a sudden switched to third person from Iggy’s perspective for a short while mid-book. Although it did add more dimension and complexity to the story to hear more of what Iggy thought, it just seemed a random switch.
The other thing that I had issues with through the story was Black’s violence. Although we know he isn’t quite normal or healthy some of it still seemed unnecessary, especially at the end. Although he feels the need to wear dresses and he is questioning who he is, we know he still hasn’t accepted it. It is this that causes him to lash out. Although we could see from Black’s perspective why he did, that didn’t make it any better. In this way the story focused too much, I felt, on Black’s coming out to himself, which is, of course, the standard narrative in GLBTQ books. Black’s narrative showed how late in life people are still coming out, but I felt it relied too much on violence.
But there are no scriptures here in this city of angels where every moment is a life lived too fast, where the spines of freeways, like arteries, like blood, circle in hope. Permanence is this River and with piety’s conviction we make a home here. (location 4371)
I’m happy to note that Abani has written a number of other works, and I look forward to reading more by him. Needless to say I recommend this to anyone looking for something completely different.