“The Touch of the Dead”: Téa Obreht, Inland

inlandSomething might seem missing by the novel’s end, and that’s a clear sense of what larger narrative Obreht offers us about the genre she is at once using and revising. What story is Inland ultimately telling us about the American West, or about the tropes and limitations of the Western?

“Camel. Camel. How could anyone have guessed?” thinks Nora Lark, one of the two main characters in Téa Obreht’s Inland. I certainly couldn’t, at first: there’s nothing in the way Lurie, the novel’s other protagonist, speaks to his companion Burke that gives it away; there’s nothing in the conventions of the genre to which Inland more or less belongs, the Western, that prepares us for it. Inland has another surprise for us too, something about Lurie himself that we learn only after his story and Nora’s have finally intersected. In both cases, shock quickly gives way to understanding, and to appreciation of Obreht’s ingenuity. While Inland includes many elements of the classic Western—there are outlaws and sheriffs, heists and hangings, settlers and “Indians”—Obreht persistently subverts our expectations of the stories to be told about them. The result is a panoramic saga at once familiar and strange.

The action of Inland unfolds through two contrasting storylines. In both of them, as in her widely-praised debut novel The Tiger’s Wife, Obreht pushes the boundaries of realism: in her worlds, the lines between fact and fancy, and between the living and the dead, are wavery ones. Lurie’s first-person narrative recounts his misadventures on the rough edges of nineteenth-century American society. His immigrant father Hadziosman Djurić was “mistaken for a Turk so often” he disowned both his name (becoming “Hodgeman Drury” and then “Hodge Lurie”) and his faith. Orphaned as a small boy, Lurie ends up working with a man known as the Coachman, who trades in corpses—some stolen fresh from the graveyard. It is while doing this grim work that Lurie first experiences a “strange feeling at the edges of myself”: from his contact with the dead he takes away a “whorling hunger” to satisfy their unfulfilled desires. “It’s not as cold as you would expect, the touch of the dead,” he later reflects: tiger-wife

The skin prickles like a dreaming limb. It’s not the strangeness of the feeling that terrifies you—it’s their want. It blows you open.

When Lurie and the Coachman are caught, Lurie is sentenced to work as a “hireling” alongside brothers Hobb and Donovan Mattie.  When Hobb dies of typhoid, he passes on his “itch for pickpocketing” and Lurie and Donovan turn outlaw, robbing stagecoaches, waystations, and pack trains. One night during a heist Lurie seizes “an overbold New York kid” and beats him to death, and this begins the cat and mouse game between Lurie and Marshal John Berger, who becomes his dogged antagonist.

Hobb’s “want” is also what leads Lurie to Burke. One day in the spring of 1856, while heading down the Texas coast to elude Berger’s pursuit, he climbs aboard a ship docked at Indianola. Scouring the ship trying to appease Hobb’s craving, Lurie comes upon “a crude barn” erected near the stern. There he makes a discovery that changes his life forever:

And there of course—sightless, blundering into a fog of stink and breath, terrified suddenly beyond reason—what should I find but you?

The ship is the U.S.S. Supply and Lurie has chanced upon the Camel Corps, a real but little known military venture overseen by “a brooding, handsome, steadfast Syrian Turk” named Hadji Ali but called—through the same distorting process that rechristened Lurie’s father—Hi Jolly, Jolly for short. Jolly’s charges—“roaring, jostling, belching incredibly, dust-rolling, butting necks along wild laterals”—have been brought thousands of miles to “serve as pack animals for the cavalry” in territory where their legendary ability to cross long distances without water will make them invaluable.

camel13

At first just an enthralled observer, Lurie eventually becomes a full-time member of the cameleering troop. He finds himself at home among the men: for once, looking like a “Levantine” lets him blend in rather than stand out. And the camels, with their “profound intolerance and incredible strength,” win his unstinting admiration. “Camels are not for the faint of heart,” he tells us:

They are faster than one might expect, and twice as rattletrap. They are frowzy and irate. Their fur sloughs off and drifts, filling the air with a sweet, malty stench that frenzies mules and horses, who scatter to outrun their own terror.

“Their hearts belong to their riders,” he adds, and thus is born the powerful bond between Lurie and Burke that holds both them and the two strands of Inland together.

Lurie and Burke travel widely, first carrying out military missions with the Camel Corps and then, when Marshal Berger’s proximity once again puts Lurie on the run, serving in timber camps and on mining expeditions. In an elegiac mood, Lurie reminds Burke of the wonders they have seen:

You have stood on the shores of the mighty Platte, where Red Cloud’s Sioux, gathered for the parley that would be their ruin, had grazed a horseherd two thousand strong, balding the prairie all the way back to the tree line. You have seen the hunchback yuccas pick up their spiny skirts to flee an oncoming duststorm. … You have stood on bluffs planted up with scorched saplings where the ground was pocked with exhalations, with ruts belching white gobs of mud. You have walked the rim of a jaundiced gulch, veined high and low with bands of ore, through which the whitecaps of a nameless river went roaring.

Everywhere they go, the camels arouse wonder, fascination, and fear. “We saw curiously few Indians,” Lurie recalls; “word had got around, as it always did, that we were traveling with monsters.”

arizona-territory

In contrast to Lurie’s wide-ranging tale, Nora’s story takes us through just a single eventful day in 1893 on and around her homestead in the Arizona Territory. She lives there with her husband Emmett, once a teacher, now a newspaper man; with her three sons Rob, Dolan, and Toby; with Emmett’s mother Harriet, “immobilized two years ago by a stroke”; and with Josie, “the daughter of Emmett’s cousin Martha,” who unlike Nora has yet to “harden” to their arduous frontier life. It’s not just that Josie is too soft for the work—”ordinary ranch implements confounded her”—but that she is awash in useless and often debilitating beliefs:

Churning around in Josie’s mind was an almanac of tincture remedies, Oriental magic, occult notions, absurd natural histories—especially those detailing the monstrous lizards unearthed by Cope and Marsh—all of which she talked ceaselessly about.

Above all, Josie is plagued by the dead, who, “according to Josie, were everywhere”: “They announced themselves to her in town; on the road; at church. Their sentiments were revealed to her abruptly and ferociously.”

Nora scorns Josie’s “unwelcome eccentricity,” which distracts Josie from the more literal threats that preoccupy Nora, such as, on this key day, their dwindling water supply. But Nora herself has a hidden relationship that also defies reason: she carries on constant silent conversations with the ghost of her baby daughter Evelyn. Evelyn’s death is part of what has transformed Nora from a hopeful, loving woman into a “tough, opinionated, rangy, sweating mule of a thing”: not just the tragedy itself, but Nora’s own role in it, which is one of the threads Obreht unspools for us as this difficult day drags on.  It’s a day driven by thirst—for water, but also for information. Emmett has been missing for three days, and now Rob and Dolan too are not to be found. Meanwhile, Josie and sensitive young Toby are overwrought from fear of “the beast” Josie insists she has seen—“a ruffle-boned skeleton with great, folded wings on its back.” “You think I’m telling tales,” Toby complains when Nora is unconvinced by the signs he shows her of its menacing presence. “Mama don’t think the tracks are cloven,” he reports petulantly to Josie when they come back in from their investigation; “They don’t strike her as tracks at all.”

camel-4306242_1280Thanks to Lurie’s tale, readers will guess the beast’s identity well before Nora does. Before that moment of revelation, however, much has yet to transpire, as Nora’s question for her missing husband and sons brings back memories and leads to encounters with her neighbors, the sheriff, and local ‘Cattle King’ Merrion Crace, all of whom are entangled in a controversy over a proposal to move the county seat from Amargo, where Nora and Emmett have settled, to nearby Ash River. Crace wants to shut down the opposition to the move for which Emmett’s paper has provided a forum; his leverage includes what he knows about Evelyn’s death and what he and the Sheriff tell Nora about Emmett’s fate, and about what Rob and Dolan have been up to since they rode off in the night.

While Lurie is a man in constant motion, Nora is a woman seeking to stay put. After their marriage, the Larks had “followed railroad and rumor” for two years trying to establish a life for themselves on the frontier: “No sooner had Nora warmed to the curtains and mattresses of whatever place boarded them than they were off again.” Finally, in Amargo, bit by painful bit they build a home and a life for themselves and their growing family. “Should the county seat be lost to Ash River,” Nora knows, “all this would have been for nothing.” The pressure of change is inexorable, though, even in remote Amargo:

Hardly a day went by, it seemed, without the newspapers touting some remarkable discovery that had altered the truth or convenience of living … From Atlantic state palaces of learning, educational revues were making their way slowly inland to share the latest scientific advancements: anatomical marvels and wonders of automation. Put together, these all had the effect of drawing things closer to one another, of illuminating that grainy twilight beyond which lay the landscape of a new and truer world.

Emmett (if he ever returned) would, she knows, have no qualms about moving on yet again: “All difficulties in Emmett’s view could be solved by pulling up stakes.” But all Nora can think about is what they might leave behind with this house where “every beam, every mirror, every corner … breathed with the immutable spirit of her daughter. “If I leave here,” she says plaintively to the Evelyn only she can perceive, “will you come with me? Or will you have to stay?”

The strength of the bond between the living and the dead shapes both Lurie’s and Nora’s stories. The novel’s many ghosts might seem to push Inland out of history towards fantasy. As Nora eventually concludes, however, truth is already proving stranger than fiction:

If electromagnetic pulses could fly through the air; if giants with shinbones the length of her entire body had once roamed ancient seas; if the world was plagued by living creatures so miniscule that no living eye could see them, but so vicious that they could lay waste to entire cities—was it not also possible that Josie’s claims … might hold some truth? Might the dead truly inhabit the world alongside the living: laughing, thriving, growing and occupying themselves with the myriad mundanities of afterlife, invisible merely because the mechanism of seeing them had yet to be invented?

Lurie’s story in particular, it turns out, depends on answering “yes” to these rhetorical questions, but Inland as a whole plays with their implications, building a world on “what if” premises that, as Nora’s equivocal skepticism shows, are sometimes easier to dismiss in theory than in practice. More even than Obreht’s nineteenth-century characters, after all, we have learned to live with belief in what we cannot see.

ghost-town

Obreht vividly evokes the sights, sounds, and moods of her frontier setting: Inland conveys both what it is like to travel, fight, and forage across the miles with Lurie and Burke and how it feels to scrabble and fret with Nora and her family on the precarious margins of the modernizing world. For all the pleasures of Obreht’s prose and the originality of her intertwined plots, though, something might seem missing by the novel’s end, and that’s a clear sense of what larger narrative Obreht offers us about the genre she is at once using and revising. What story is Inland ultimately telling us about the American West, or about the tropes and limitations of the Western? Hers is certainly an unconventionally populated saga: both camels and Muslims, though present in reality, are missing in nation-building myth. Inland reminds us that if they seem alien in the landscape she draws it is only because we have not seen it clearly before. The underlying logic of the frontier, however, with its commitment to settler colonialism, is never challenged. While clinging to her home in Amargo, Nora never questions her right to the land; to her, its original inhabitants are the aliens, their proximity filling her with “a plunging dread.”

Yet in the shadows of Nora’s anxious racism, which turns out to have had devastating consequences, we can perhaps glimpse the critique Obreht refrains from spelling out explicitly. One hot day, carrying Evelyn on her front, Nora sees “a dark rider on a spotted horse” on the horizon: “she thought Apache because the word had been growing in her like an illness all her life.” Panicked, she hides in the field for hours, with Evelyn pressed between her body and the ground. It is this act of fear and suspicion that brings on the heatstroke that leads to Evelyn’s death. “There were Indians,” Nora insists ever after; “Five of them. Apaches.” But it wasn’t Indians: it was her neighbor Armando Cortez—“a dark man,” yes, but no more a threat than the Navajo woman (or is she Apache? Nora, revealingly, cannot tell) whose inscrutable visits have exacerbated Nora’s self-destructive paranoia.

nazar-amulet

Lurie and Nora, then, are linked not just by Burke or by ghosts but also by white Americans’ pervasive fear of “dark” others, though Lurie is a victim of this bias while Nora is one of its perpetrators. Lurie finds unlikely fellowship among the cameleers, his kinship with them symbolized in the glass bead he steals from the ship where he also finds Burke—“deepwater blue, painted up with a dizziness of receding circles … something very like the nazar my father had kept in his pocket.” Much later, the nazar turns up in Nora’s barn, a tangible reminder of the interconnectedness of even the most apparently dissimilar lives. While for Lurie strangeness becomes his freedom, even his happiness, Nora’s fear of it has hemmed her in. By the end of the novel she can at least picture something different, a life more fluid and various. Obreht, in her turn, makes the Western strange to her readers, offering us an account not of how the West was won but of how its real diversity could be reimagined.

 

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