—GULF COAST: A JOURNAL OF LITERATURE AND FINE ARTS
“Startling, fresh perspective.”
“Innovative and daring…beautiful and heart-wrenching.”
“Brilliant insights and ideas about the world.”
“Hamann’s debut novel dares to enter the consciousness of an introspective artist and does not provide us with a trite ending or a simple linear narrative.”
When we think of coming-of-age stories, we often think of teenagers losing their virginities, falling in and out of love, and finding their place in the world. Typical pop culture examples might include television’s Dawson’s Creek, in which the young heroine’s primary struggle lies in choosing between two boyfriends, or the movie Say Anything, in which two high school graduates find love, break up, and reunite prepared for adulthood. Amid such standard loss-of-innocence tales, though, we also have H.T.Hamann’s Anthropology of an American Girl, which presents the startling, fresh perspective of Eveline, a gifted artist whose journey into adulthood is marked by rape, suicide, and an on-again, off-again romance with an older man whose primary passion is boxing. Eveline is never the typical girl-next-door simply dealing with the day-to-day stress of classes and exams; this young narrator is exceptionally beautiful, introspective, and artistic. She’s a thinker whose every moment is philosophical and rich with insight. Despite the traumas she endures in life, she manages to preserve her optimism, and ours as well, as we follow her from the beginning of the novel in the late 1970s when Eveline is a seventeen-year-old high school student in the Hamptons, through her college days in New York, and finally to her post-college experiences at the age of twenty-two. Over the course of five-hundred-plus pages, our journey with her is jarring, frequently beautiful, and never prosaic. Hamann structures her novel in an innovative and daring manner, frequently departing from the traditional form of linear narrative. In fact, the opening pages of the novel are actually repeated later in the book. Eveline reveals to us: “I used to be telepathic. I used to know things before they happened. It’s like hearing wind when there’s no wind or hearing an echo with no source.” Eveline does not try to make her story immediately tangible to the reader; instead, we wander through her world and frequently dip into her past, as memory upon memory accompany her experiences. These ambiguities of time and place make sense, though, precisely because Eveline’s life soon becomes a series of repeated patterns: violations by men, stagnation, periods of uncertainty, and the loss of love. In the course of the novel, we take on Eveline’s unique vision. She tells us: “I struggle with aspects of vision. Often what occurs to my eyes is not simply real but uncommonly real. At close range my mind has the habit of animating inanimate articles…Far-away things look sad and oversmall, destined for defeat. I am not responsible with things on the horizon. I always feel like I’m watching the very last bison on the very last prairie.” Her observations are not limited to the time and space she occupies rather, she constantly travels from present to past as experiences trigger other memories. As in Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, Hamann’s narrator seeks to absorb virtually all of the details around her, leading to lengthy, sometimes overwhelming prose. At times, the level of detain in Eveline’s observations can be frustrating, as when a reflection on the Pledge of Allegiance leads to memory upon memory that bombard the reader until they become difficult to prioritize. Other times, this technique brilliantly mimics human thought and allows us to glimpse the entirety of Eveline’s internal world. Despite her youth, Eveline never restrains herself from imparting her wisdom and observations to the reader. She is full of observations and eager to share them. She tells us early on: “Lying is hard; of you want to do it right, you have to visualize the lie, conjure the graphics, tone, and sequence of action, then relate it meaningfully in the midst of seemingly spontaneous dialogue. You have to love or loathe to object so much that you want to protect them from truth or protect truth from them.” Eveline’s narratives are peppered with such aphorisms, and, as a result, we have access not only to Eveline’s experiences, but also to her brilliant insights and ideas about the world.
Early on in the novel, we watch Eveline cope with the experience of two high school boys raping her at the same time. Even before we encounter this scene, however, Eveline expresses her ideas about gender: “It was tradition; they would not be punished. It wasn’t girl tradition, girls had no traditions—anyway, none that teachers or boys would share. It was a boy tradition—a test of gender loyalty, part of male experience—next comes fraternities, bachelor parties, firefighters, war, politics, the police.” Later, Eveline does not call the police or condemn her rapists, for she considers this futile. Rather, when one of the rapists calls her, she discusses the weather with him. Even as we live through these experiences of brutality and despair, we also share positive experiences with Eveline, such as her intense emotional connection with a brilliant musician named Jack—her first love and unlikely companion. The scenes between Jack and Eveline are original and energetic; here, the reader feels grounded, connected to both characters. Jack and Eveline spend hours engaging in intellectual conversations about desire and longing and death. The reader comes to believe that the narrative arc of the novel will revolve around this powerful childhood love. But Eveline refuses to allow the reader to pinpoint this one relationship, this one phase of her life, as the central plot of the novel. Rather, we travel further with her as she slowly breaks away from Jack and becomes increasingly obsessed with an older man temporarily teaching in the drama department: Harrison Rourke. Rourke is a character who often appears unpalpable and hazy to us—a passionate boxer, he is dark, enigmatic, and strong, with immense sexual appeal. Eveline’s relationship with him is not defined by traditional teenage courting—flirtation, dating, then a “steady” relationship. Instead her bond to him is powerful, dramatic, and intense—defined by uncertainty and pain. Their connection is deeply emotional and dramatic…beautiful and heart-wrenching. H.T.Hamann’s debut novel dares to enter the consciousness of an introspective artist and does not provide us with a trite ending or a simple linear narrative. We meet character upon character, and, as in real life, we will carry memories of some and forget others. We experience the changes around Eveline as she moves from one decade to the other, from the liberated 1970s to the more constrained 1980s.