Olympia Vernon’s first novel was called from her by angels. In the fall of 2001, when even the sky seemed to be falling, she sat typing for days on end, forgetting to eat, transcribing what her characters—strong and mutilated, working and praying citizens of Mississippi—had to tell her. Her used computer, bought for $500, crashed often, losing hundreds of pages. “I had a habit of not saving things,” she explains, in an interview with the Voice. Both that urgency and that density—eight pages destroyed, she estimates, for each one that remains—are palpable in Eden, her astonishing debut.
Vernon, 29, tells the story of the novel’s conception in trademark high-drama style. “I was at my sister’s house in Duncanville, Texas. I could not get this one line out of my head. One Sunday morning, during Bible study, I took a tube of fire-engine red lipstick and drew a naked lady on the first page of Genesis. I wrote it down. It was about 4 a.m. I told my sister, ‘I have to go to New Orleans.’ ‘Why?’ she asked. ‘Because I can’t stop it. I can’t stop the line from running away.’ ”
That line became Eden’s opening sentence, spoken by 14-year-old Maddy Dangerfield. The lipstick belongs to her Aunt Pip, who has slept with Maddy’s father, a transgression for which the girl’s grandmother cut off his arm. Maddy, an avid encyclopedia reader, is sent to care for Aunt Pip, now dying of breast cancer, while Mama works herself to the bone to pay off her one-armed husband’s gambling debts to a man named Jesus. The widow Fat, Pip’s best friend, whose husband Justice was lynched after allegedly raping a white woman, helps the girl in her bedside vigils.
These are the primal scenes, the bare elements of melodrama, the Morrisonian, Faulknerian, Southern Gothic family secrets, familiar in their very atrocity. Yet plot in this novel is no more than a given, the conditions people have to bear. What matters are words and the senses they invoke: “I felt a pulsating vein in [Aunt Pip’s] wrists. This was her living blood, running up through her body in an ordinary pattern. Common, like the laughter of children: a thing of its own dependence.”
“I don’t consider myself a poet,” Vernon says. “When my characters want to write, they wake me up in the middle of the night and they keep talking until they are finished. Sometimes, they have to pee or sleep and I let them. I don’t write until they want to speak. I don’t write for Olympia.” Vernon converses just like she writes—with extreme, slightly off-kilter intensity. Her personal mythology is very advanced for a first novelist, making it hard to separate truth and legend. But these are the known facts: Vernon grew up one of seven children in Mount Hermon, Louisiana, and Osyka, Mississippi, on the Louisiana border, not far from where Eden is set. She holds a degree in criminal justice as well as an M.F.A. from Louisiana State University. Upon receiving Vernon’s application to the program, a faculty member said, “This woman writes like she just found out about English.”
Indeed, each sentence of Eden startles, though the locutions can be jarring or opaque. Vernon’s voice sometimes takes on an Orphic authority, rising from vigilant observation and the magical force of language to make the ordinary new. “I could always look at something and write about it. Anything. A grain of salt. A chair. A vitamin,” she says. “But there were times when I wanted to be that grain of salt, that chair, that vitamin, because I could not keep the novels from coming.” (Vernon claims to have written five novels, three in the span of three months.)
With the insistence of a recurring dream, that naked woman on the pages of Scripture returns in parts to hover over Eden: breasts and vaginas, arms and bellies, blood and vomit, thighs and mouths, a physical reality more enduring than the dualities of black and white, man and woman, living and dead, Adam and Eve. The air is full of the odors of her dead grandmother and dying aunt. Like Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo, Maddy floats through her birthplace searching for her identity in the deathbeds of her ancestors, the flesh of her flesh; the town is a landscape of women’s bodies and souls.
Big Mama loved magnolias. Once the flowers wilted, she took them inside the house and stripped the branches bare. She would show me the curves. “This is a woman’s body,” she would say. “I’m putting her clothes on. She will live here with me until I’m gone. She will never leave me.” . . . Aunt Pip’s house was surrounded by magnolias. The petals were open, wide. The yellow parts had fallen onto the white, and they lay exposed like a woman’s vagina at birth.
Vernon detests labels. “Please, don’t ever pin me down,” she says. Her writing deserves to transcend its Library of Congress subject headings—Women’s. African-American. Southern. Rural. Spirituality. But the land of Eden manifests what Alejo Carpentier called the essential, if paradoxical, principle of magical realism—not the wonder of the supernatural, but lo real maravilloso—the marvelousness of the real. In one revelatory scene, the strangely seductive Fat, nude from her bath, warns Maddy away from Landy Collins, the exquisite object of her adolescent lust, who just happens to be a coffin maker. Fat blows the smoke from a “feelgood” (a joint) into Maddy’s nostrils, then paces, reading a letter from Maddy’s uncle, in prison for the same crime that cost Fat’s husband his life. Intoxicated, Maddy’s consciousness expands to take in all of history:
All I remember is the smell of her fur when she walked back and forth on the floorboards. The faucet, the heat rising from the lightbulb, the machines, Mama ironing out the wrinkles in Daddy’s clothes, Billie Holiday’s shoulders, the circumference of a circle, Auschwitz, Willie Patterson, death, my death, Landy Collins, the faucet, the sound of a woman’s voice, Hitler, so many other things that I could not remember to save my life.
This catalog, freer than any other passage in the book, is absolutely arresting. Maddy is a compassionate heart taking in the suffering of the world, not bound to that of her own race. With wild specificity, Vernon re-creates a universal existential moment: the quailing of the spirit in confrontation with “death, my death.”
For Olympia Vernon, writing is a form of communion. She describes the spirits of the dead meeting her on a red velvet staircase. “I touch them and their stories come out in my fingertips. I immediately know how they have died when they touch me. And we do not speak in voice, but mind. . . . I am no psychic. But I know I was born with something greater than Olympia.”