The novel hinges around various thematic nuclei: a reexamination of the psychiatric in a kind of auto-analysis in which the personality of the protagonist divides itself in order to understand itself; her father’s suicide in the residential mental health facility where he lives; the touching accounts of the patients which Lorenza, who has become an existential therapist, listens to in the psychiatric ward where she works; her relationship to literature and writing, which become a kind of self-medication as well as developmental tool for her own individuality; the twisted relationship with her alter-ego Lorenzo, whom she can’t quite identify as crazy or sublime.
At the level of form, much of the work is interwoven with notes from the diary of the protagonist as a “work of time”, a tool for keeping her mercurial personality assembled. The diary is largely a simple depository of notes and memories relating to everyday events, family, and friends, or bizarre flirtations, anecdotes, or the emergence of insanity in the everyday. However paradoxically, the most interesting element of the diary is its absence of specific literary intentions and its existence instead as a form of the protagonist’s documentary fetishism.
Grafted in among the diaristic annotations, the work houses multiform material which crosses genre boundaries: half-delusional-half-clinical case descriptions of the illness’ manifestations, which the protagonist recounts to an imaginary interlocutor; more traditional narrative sections about past episodes; assiduous transcriptions of oniric activity; passages with an essayistic slant on literary and psychological themes; transcriptions of patients’ stories reported word-by-word; peculiar reportage of the amorous adventures of the protagonist, whose sexual orientation is an indecipherable, ambiguous mix of mysticism and pornography; and even simple records of gym exercises completed and food consumed each day.
At a structural level, the absence of an intended plot in the conventional sense has the objective of imitating the incoherence of life, since events do not follow one another as if they had been premeditated in every detail. The absence of plot also allows the reader to meditate deeply on a topic each time it is proposed. The structure of the work is not therefore derived from a precise narrative track, but from the progressive, subtle sedimentation of thematic resonances. The author, who is at the same time the protagonist of the novel, does not invent a story to show off her talent or to demonstrate the power of storytelling. The intent is rather to tell a story as faithful to life as possible, and therefore a story at the lowest, least rational, least literary level, absent of an internally concluded plot and absent of a moral endpoint.
From the aesthetic perspective, the language does not veer much from everyday speech. Though it may perhaps be occasionally literary, the majority of it is rough, concrete, and immediate. Its stylistic prestige therefore does not derive from a “high” usage of language, but from a general transfiguration of meanings, which transform past memories in a kind of mythological narration which eventually displaces the heaviness of pain with felt experience in a grandiose, newly invented world.
For more than a year I’ve been spending at least four hours a day convinced that I’m a supernatural entity. Some days I’m sure I’m a knight who has attained the highest heroism, on other days I believe I’m a bull, and on still others I believe I’m a cow that’s stupid and good, running around inside her fence, a kind of sacred cow. And in and of itself the cow wouldn’t be sacred at all, much less supernatural, if not for the fact that I am not the cow. I am a woman, I tell myself, I’m the mother of my daughter, I live with a man. It’s true, I’ve got a few thoughtless habits, for example, I don’t pay much attention to cleaning, but I’m not a cow. Could I be a cow? No, I’m not one. And yet … Other times I believe I’m a kind of living scale, a universal micro-judgement that’s come down into the body of a woman, a simple woman as unexpected as she is unavoidable. And who could have assigned me such a high purpose? I don’t know, it doesn’t even begin to enter my mind to ask that question.
Still other times I believe I’m a semi-human, a live mutant, an animal with strange internal organs. When I walk down the street I notice people watching me.
Even though everyday experience manifestly contradicts my convictions, that doesn’t mean those convictions stop populating my thoughts. I put on tennis shoes and a plain t-shirt and take my daughter to preschool, and yet as I’m pedaling along I think: “I am a strange creature” as my little girl is laughing and tugging on my ponytail. On the short trip from home to the preschool I look at the pavement riddled with potholes and the sidewalks littered with chewing gum and cigarette butts: “Look – I say to myself – these sidewalks, these streets, the sunlight are all still here … it’s the afternoon now, and yet …”
There’s always that and yet in the mix; reality doesn’t convince me.
I have the impression of not being well formed, of not having settled into a precise mold. I feel more like a ball of dough set to rise than a person. And you never know how a ball of dough might turn out, you always have to watch the humidity, cover it carefully with a cloth, keep it in a dry, protected place, since one little change in temperature could make it all cave in.
I often run into doorjambs or against the corner of a table or wardrobe. Could I possibly not know how to measure things?! Evidently I don’t understand my own dimensions. I imagine I am less bulky than I am, that I have narrower shoulders, shorter arms. When a corner jabs me in between one tendon and another and electrifies my nerves, I curse and shoot a dirty look at my arm as if it had been rude enough to suddenly materialize.
Other times though my body feels light and empty, blown up like a lovely balloon just about to take flight. What a delightful feeling! Instead of having muscles and flesh I feel full of air, and walking, moving, or running doesn’t tire me out or require any physical effort, only pleasant thought.
There’s something absurdly provisional in human morphology with its two arms, two legs, one pair of ears, one heart, and one single life available to it. One time a psychologist said to me, “You have delusions of omnipotence” and I, who hail from the numinous era of non-time responded, “I do not! A human being is grand, a human is generous and magnanimous, a human is a haven for so many things! It is you who have delusions of impotence!”
As I said, I began to notice my body when I was about fourteen years old, at first in a vague way, and as time went along in a way that was always more lucid and conscious until I turned twenty-five, when my body made itself known for the first time in all its undeniable solidity, at which point I decided to record it, just as a notary records a new birth, a death, etc. If I had lived only internally before then, from that moment on I felt myself living in my body as well, and it was that that point that I decided to be born for all intents and purposes. One day, sitting at the kitchen table with my grandmother – a quiet summer afternoon – while I was drinking my fruit juice, I was seized by one of those ideas that leap into your mind and fill you with joyous vitality, and I cried out enthusiastically, “Right now I’m being born!” I remember the exact words, and I even remember that I shot up from my seat, determined as a young sapling shooting out toward nobody knows where. Where was I going? Was I maybe going to be born?! And where? Hilarious!
Before I turned twenty-five, basically, I appear to have had a body, but it was as if it hadn’t taken root in my mind, as if it had been floating along in its prenatal trance. I had broad shoulders, long legs, a pair of feet, and even knees with kneecaps, but I couldn’t actually have sworn to any of it.
It’s no accident that in order to be born –that summer day I pretty much ran to the gym – I chose the most methodical sport there is: body-building. “To build” means to construct, to fabricate, to found, but also to transform, and that was what I needed, an act that would give form to my body centimeter by centimeter, and that would sanction the transformation of vague subjective impression to unequivocable material entity. Body-building is the least organic athletic discipline that I know of, it doesn’t have anything to do with movement as a whole, it doesn’t deal with the body in its entirety; its goal is to develop one muscle at a time, with no other ideal than to achieve the hypertrophy of each muscular group. Although I didn’t particularly love it, still this sport suited me because it carried me in the direction of my desire for identification, and practicing it was like a baptism, or like a kind of yoga meditation where you visualize each part of your own body internally, going over it from head to foot. That’s exactly it, I was going over my body in a concrete meditation. My lavish effort during training was a kind of self-conception, and the transformations I experienced in the following months were the resulting pregnancy.
I would dedicate a couple of hours to daily exercise and gradually as my biceps, triceps, and pectorals developed, I felt authorized to possess them. After each training session, with my muscles aching, I was pervaded with a new, amazing happiness: “I have abdominal muscles! I have dorsal muscles! I exulted in this boorish technical jargon. During the time of my self-conception through sport I was radiant, at the extremes of a dazed state. Before, I would never have been able to say I had a knee, a leg, lumbars, and now instead I could brag about having skin and even the ability to sweat. Wonderful!
Concurrently I started to adjust my perception of my own dimensions. As I already mentioned, before committing to body-building I would often run into doorways because I thought I could pass through them. Who knows what I thought I was, probably a void. Each time I would forget about my physical presence, more or less the way someone forgets they have put water on to boil while doing something more interesting, like fighting with the neighbors, for example. I can’t say that this problem is entirely solved now, but it is better. When I am training regularly, I manage to go through doors unscathed, with a few rare exceptions. It’s a great victory for me. But if someone gets on my nerves or I have what I call a “difficult moment” – which I will talk more about later – I still sometimes run recklessly into doorways and walls, making everyone a little worried. One time during a conference on bioethics I broke a glass door that went all the way up to the ceiling. The unbelievable thing is that I didn’t get hurt.
I haven’t learned from either pain or pleasure. Every time I run into something, naturally I hurt myself, but that doesn’t stop me from going on and running into something else. We take it for granted that we possess a direct awareness of our own body, or at least that we shouldn’t have to make a mental note to remember that we have one, but it seems like I always have to remind myself about mine. When I sit down in a chair, on a sofa, or on the toilet seat, I often aim wrong and instead of landing on the middle of the toilet I come down on the edge and throw off the whole seat. It’s both pathetic and comical, and as a result I keep a spare toilet seat in the bathroom cupboard.
The pain of being hit, scratched, or bruised reminds me of my corporeality the way the Franciscan monks use knots to use to weigh down the cords around their waists, so they don’t forget about their spiritual duties. If in classical iconography a skull on a desk with some nice cut flowers missing few petals is a “memento mori” to remind us of our finiteness and that sooner or later we have to die, then all my dents and dings are a “memento vitae”. My bruises are there to remind me of myself, that I exist here in this world in the form of a woman.
I move ahead in reverse. If normally we have to remember to die, I have to remember to live. Baptism is the immersion of the body in water, and it symbolizes the passage of the individual awareness into a broader, more universal spiritual element. Baptism, which literally means “immersion”, marks the admission of the body into an immaterial and soulful state. My baptism through body building had instead sanctioned the opposite passage, from “heaven” to “earth”. It was like coming to light, because finally I surfaced into reality. While baptism in its role as a religious sacrament consecrates a soul coming into the world, my baptism had consecrated the coming into the world of a body. It was my incarnation.
The interior life and the realm of the beyond for me were obvious, taken for granted, but the physical dimension and the worldly realm were not. I had to come into communion with the earth, and instead of sacralizing the soul I had to sacralize the body, which was a stranger to me.
Excerpt from the unpublished novel The Good Omen by Lorenza Ronzano. Translation by Anne Greeott.