by Carmiel Banasky
Dzanc Books. 2015
“A decades-long plunge. The woman falls elegantly. Each frame, a segment of the woman’s fall, disconnected like a shattered mirror. . . . She is old in one frame, young in the next, echoing, perhaps, a life flashing before one’s eyes—if a person’s whole life is one giant fall.”
Carmiel Banasky’s debut novel is itself a decades-long plunge, mirroring the structure of the portrait of Claire Bishop, described above. This portrait is the inception for all narrative action in The Suicide of Claire Bishop.
Split between two timelines, one beginning in 1959 following Claire Bishop and the other focused on West Butler in 2004, Banasky weaves a tale of how we construct meaning when confronted by signs of ourselves in the world around us. The two protagonists move toward each other as the plot moves toward self-discovery.
Claire Bishop, a woman living her life resigned to a hereditary madness that never manifests, has a portrait painted of her, commissioned by her husband. The painter, Nicolette, depicts instead Claire Bishop jumping off the Brooklyn Bridge. In 2004, schizophrenic West Butler’s search for his ex-girlfriend, a painter named Nicolette, careens into a caper spanning the United States, when a new artwork dated circa 1950 and without providence, surfaces with only an “N” for the artist’s signature.
In many ways a novel of manners, The Suicide of Claire Bishop takes a look at class, gender roles, and religious groups, all the while weaving the very personal philosophies of the protagonists. West’s second person similes: “People only end the way a yardstick ends and the way a road ends. They stop in space. We cry[,]” and the subtle maxims of Claire’s mind: “Or maybe nothing happened next. . . . Perhaps her mother was waiting for him still. The mind drifts to loss.”
Written from a close third person point of view, the internal processing of Claire allows the narrative arc to be placed on the page. A line such as “’I think we should separate.’” Gets the dialogue tag, “She said that. She did.” The narrator is the disembodied voice of Claire’s consciousness of what’s going on around her.
It’s easy to see Claire as an unwitting Faustian archetype when Nicolette, the painter, explains the meaning behind the portrait, “’I only painted what I saw. I took this notion of your death—your suicide—and I gave it to the work. So it can’t happen. Do you see?’” Claire’s portrait, a portrait of a woman throughout time, contains her suicide so that Claire can avoid it.
In West’s story we are in his point of view. A diagnosed schizophrenic, as the stakes raise the reader needs to understand reality only as West understands it. Placing us anywhere outside of him, creating a world separate from his delusions, would be to create a portrait of mental illness rather than what Banasky does so well, which is to create a much more encompassing portrait, one of the personal rather than that of the clinical.
In West’s timeline, Nicolette leaves him a letter. She outlines a personal history as well as an aesthetic ideology: “It is easy to think of the image as timeless. Stilled. No beginning, middle, or end, no linearity, except that which we impose through language. But this is not entirely true. There is no separation between image and words.” Works of art, The Suicide of Claire Bishop points out, are the enduring signs and symbols that create meaning throughout history. They exist in time unlike the humans creating meaning from them.
When the narrative arcs of West and Claire finally intersect, the conclusion is not suicide. It is old age and confrontation with past demons. This is a book of semiotics of works of art, both visual and literary. Banasky’s novel is its own symbol, packed with powerful prose that makes a reader feel they “…could open wide so the world would suddenly and violently fill (them) up.”