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Camping out

TRUTH BY THE LAKE Camping Out centers around a canoe trip taken by two women in the Vermont woods. They’re old friends; that is, they knew each other a long time ago at Radcliffe, but even then their relationship was strained. Marilyn’s prickly nature, her lesbianism, and her success at what Dennie considers “phony poetry” imposed distance between them. They haven’t seen each other for years, except for one chance encounter at a mutual friend’s when Dennie, otherwise sexually conventional (as far as we know anyway), was suddenly intensely attracted to Marilyn. She kept it to herself but is still somewhat disturbed by it. The two haven’t met since.

Dennie has been living with her diplomat husband and her son in Italy. She has come back to the States for her mother’s funeral. Marilyn, having read the obituary, shows up at the funeral and suggests Dennie visit her in Vermont–this leads to the camping trip. From the beginning, the trip seems perilous–Marilyn packs knives, an ax, and an anti-rape weapon made of a tampon with stout needles stuck into it. And we’re given to know, before they set out, that something horrible will happen. There are hints of the violent death of Marilyn’s dog, Corky, and of some other, sexual, violence aimed at Marilyn and Dennie. Eventually the source of this danger shows up, in the form of a charming, well-read, tin-flute playing, but still undeniably sinister escaped convict named Fred.

All these intriguing details come out through a letter Dennie writes Marilyn after the camping trip is long over, so we know from the outset that both women survive. Suspense on its simplest level is not what clark is after; by using the letter she shifts her emphasis from the story itself to what Dennie, looking back, makes of it. The events of the trip, horrifying though they are, are less important than what Dennie reveals about herself in them.

To hear her tell it, there’s truth to the belief that at moments of crisis your life flashes before your eyes. The camping trip as she recalls it was a series of such moments, each of which trigger long-submerged yet minutely detailed memories of her childhood. For the reader, the experience is initially disconcentrating. We lurch from a violent Vermont deluge to tableaux from an Italian fortresss, the Rocca, where Dennie spent several years as a child. The Signorina, the little old lady miser who owned the place, naturally comes to mind, but so do such particulars as “three small amateur paintings on the wall, framed: of trees, cows by a barn, a bowl of fruit,” and a hand-embroidered set of priestly vestments all done in bees and roses.

It may seem unlikely that, lying face down and half-frozen at lake’s edge, Dennie would call up her memories with such coherence and intricacy. And we’re thrown too, at first, by the tendency of the narrative to veer off almost imperceptibly, from the first person of Dennie’s letter to some unspecified third. Is Marilyn’s voice taking over, we wonder, and how does she know what was in Dennie’s mind? Such literal-minded hesitations clue us in to what Clark is up to, and they focus attention on who is telling the story, and how, and what tricks of mind the telling reveals.

Clark leads us to feel that there’s no clear demarcation in the human mind between past and present, between what’s happened and what effect it’s had, between what’s happened and what we feel must, almost in consequence, happen. Dennie is stirred, for example, by the New England mountains and trees to recall childhood camping trips with her grandfather and her twin brother, Rick. She remembers them singing “The Road to Mandalay” by the campfire, and realizes that Rick, who’s off saving boat people, must now be somewhere in the vicinity of Mandalay. When she thinks of him, though, some lurking guilt surfaces, some disturbing occurrence that came between thosecamping trips and this one; she pushes him from her mind. But later, by a similar campfire, she finds herself drawn to the sinister stranger, who does after all smell comfortingly like Rick–and the longing and unease that color her relationship with her brother are overlaid on her current mixed feelings. “Memory. And desire,” she murmurs to herself at one point. The two, in her mind and Clark’s novel, are inextricably linked.

Dennie’s stories, told with numerous compulsively honest qualifiers and then-agains, form a picture of a mind attempting to weave together the scattered facts of its existence. And calling up the past, Clark shows us, both illuminates and affects the present. The way the two women appraoch memory is neatly revelatory of their characters and of the multilayered tension between them.

Still puzzled by her coldness at yesterday’s funeral, Dennie pours out, at Marilyn’s request, what she can recall of her mother and her childhood at the Rocca. Her listener is eager to record this vivid remembrance and apply her critical chic literary theories to it. Triangles (verbal constructs, and shades of gray (“the only significant color”) are all that matter to Marilyn’s mind, and Dennie tries to be accommodating. “The well-trained diplomat’s wife,” she kept her intimate and compulsive memories to herself, fed out what she knew was wanted in the way of geometry and female subjugation, with stress on the piquant and the ludicrous. Only toward the end, in a fit of perversity, outrageously, she had burst out in another vein, to suit herself…. Faces, voices, moments, for the cassette and its owner to choke on. Dennie’s combativeness at this stage, surprising to herself if not to her audience, had been across the board, and they both knew it, although it was only after the tableau of the mother mourning a dead daughter that Marilyn turned off the tape and uttered the monosyllable “Shit.”

Part of what makes the pull of memory so strong for Dennie is her longing for the remembered sense of family so prevalent at the Rocca. In defiance of Marilyn, and to fulfill her own needs, she chooses to emphasize, by implication, “the man-woman-child triangle that had no place in the listener’s mathematics.” Marilyn, as a woman and as a would-be critically correct storyteller, has no use for Dennie’s brand of memorializing.

The Rocca story leads Dennie and Marilyn to “a point of definite hostility,” and when danger, human and meteorological, begins to show itself, Dennie curses herself for her perversity. Solidarity between the two women, whether emotional or philosophical, might have altered what happens.

For we mustn’t forget Fred, who in offering a “choice of scenarios” for his appearance himself contributes to Clark’s commentary on storytelling. There’s nothing abstract about Fred, though; his presence is too vivid. Stepping ashore at their campsite all courtesy and charm, he instantly wins Marilyn by reciting her poetry to her, flashes his glinting smile, steals their canoe paddle, and departs across the lake. From then on he comes and goes, dazzles the women with his electric energy, and then drops dangerous hints of impending violence. Before long, they’re more than hints. One minute he’s suggesting they venture off to Italy together, the next he’s shouting his plans to eradicate the world. “‘Erase! Get it? Wipe out; eliminate!” With the edge of one of his shoes he made a mark in the dirt and as quickly ground it away. ‘Like that. Every living thing.'”

The astounding quickness of his transformations make them doubly frightening–to us at any rate. In retrospect Dennie wonders how much she and Marilyn played along, or at least deliberately ignored signs of what was to come. The accuracy with which these reversals and evasions of mind are revealed is stunning. Lucidly and with a certain wry toughness, Clark detailes all the nuances of the women’s complicated motivations, the intricate ways in which memory–and desire–make a horrifying turn of events seem inevitable.

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