Darkness Half Visible In Katya Apekina’s The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish

Reviewed by John Biscello

The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish
by Katya Apekina
Two Dollar Radio, 353pp., $12.74

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall;
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men
Couldn’t put Humpty together again

In the name of nursery rhyme remixology, first let us add the soothing menace of a Pink Floyd soundscape to the tale, and then let us peer into the fragmented disaster that the fallen Humpty has become, and realize that he was never an anthropomorphized egg-man at all, but rather a family incestuously consolidated into a single mutated unit, a dangerously complex and fragile organism that, in breaking apart, becomes its own prospective savior and redeemer. As you keep looking — and you will, because this specific accident has you in its grip, like a shock collar at Sunday mass — you will notice how the congealed blob that comprised Humpty’s interior is slowly disassembling into individual parts: mother, father, two daughters. How each of these exposed selves will react to their blunt individuation, their emergence from a cystic sublet, remains to be seen. And so you watch, and listen, and find yourself drawn into a narrative that is at once familiar and remote. Welcome to family, as modern American gothic, in the half-lit world of Katya Apekina’s The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish.

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First, let me start by saying that Apekina’s debut novel compelled me to do something that I have not done in a very long time: read an entire book, cover to cover, in a single night. There are certain writers who excel at meting out their prose with deceptive flatness, or muted lucidity, which serves to flood the undercurrents with depth-charges and felt-resonance (Raymond Carver and Marguerite Duras being two prime examples). It is the “awesome simplicity,” of which the jazz musician Charles Mingus raved, and which Apekina deftly demonstrates in her rendering of a searing family drama. Subtly weaving together a tapestry of voices and shifting perspectives, the novel centers on two teenage daughters — Edith, sixteen, and Mae, fourteen — who go to live with their dad in New York, after their mother has been hospitalized for a suicide attempt and breakdown. Their dad, about whom Mae has no memories and Edith has a scattered scarcity from her earliest years, is a famous writer and cultural icon, renowned for both his literary legacy and civil rights activism in the 1960s.

It is in this tense, awkward and complicated reconciliation that Edith and Mae are driven down two very different paths, while the dark and haunted relationship of Dennis (their dad) and Marianne (their mom) comes to light in flashbacks, journal entries, letters, family and friends reminiscences, and other pinhole effects which create a story that is painfully true in its distortions and ambiguities. Marianne, bearing existential resemblance to Zelda Fitzgerald, Holly Go Lightly and Anne Sexton, is a would-be poet who throughout her marriage to Dennis, her “father figure” (she was seventeen when she married the thirty-two year old Dennis, whom she had known since she was a child), finds herself a fixed constellation in her husband’s personal cosmos, the “muse,” who, in her coveted brokenness, was rigged to inspire. Or, as one of their mutual friends, recollects: “He was an emotional vampire. He needed her to be in a certain state to be his muse.”

And yet, Apekina never paints any of her characters into a reductive corner, or sacrifices the complexity of grayness to moral message-bearing. What she does, and exquisitely so, is examine the psychically tangled interdependence of relationships, the stultifying webs, and the betrayals, longing, shame, disquiet, desperation and toxicity which stake their claims as a result.

Her characters maneuver through emotional and psychological minefields, half-blindly, hoping to avoid the missteps that will trigger detonations. This boogeyman tiptoe may assume the form of calculated caution (Edith: “Sometimes, I’d wake up and find Mom sitting on the porch, smoking in the dark. I’d want to come sit by her but I knew better than to bother her. When you have a mom like our mom you develop an instinct for this sort of thing. Bother her too much and she’ll leave.”) or evasiveness (Mae: I wouldn’t say I wanted Mom dead, I’m not a monster, but I wanted her vacuum-sealed somewhere where she couldn’t get to us.”) As the narrative of the two sisters splinters, with Edith returning to Lousiana to reunite with her hospitalized mom, and Mae staying in New York to ultimately secure her father’s love and affection, you, the reader, are drawn further and deeper into the dark forest of family dysfunction. Edith, proud, fiery, determined, loyal, is confronted by the ghostly condition of her mother’s being, a spiritual waif between two worlds, while an increasingly detached Mae sacrifices herself to a perverse ritual, in which she becomes the young Marianne that her father needs in order to write, the eternally wounded Marianne whom he couldn’t save. “I knew when I was channeling Mom well because there’d be a tremor in his face or his hands that would’ve been imperceptible to anybody else. He missed her terribly, and having her back, even in those fleeting moments meant a lot to him and to his work. After these scenes we would come home and he would type through the evening and into the night and I would scrub my face and change into pajamas and exhausted, be returned into my role as ‘Mae.’”

A “bell in the fog” is one of the metaphors that Marianne conjures, and that indeed is a choice emblem for the novel’s tonal pulse and center. From somnambulism to stalking to stray deviations, you can imagine the characters conducting their motions of disquiet within the vagaries of fog, while listening for a bell in the distance, its pealing both a summons and the means to orientation. To spend intimate time with Apekina’s fractured and feverishly seeking characters, is to enter a circle of fire within a house of mirrors, where you can feel the feel of everyone trying to get their needs met, everyone vying to be seen, heard, witnessed, held, cherished. And if the sleep of reason produces monsters, as Goya suggested, than what exactly is conjured in the sleep of distance dividing heart from heart, home from home? What lies at the bottom of a murky reflecting pool? Can Humpty Dumpty be put back together again? Within the pages of The Deeper the Water the Uglier the Fish, you won’t find any simple answers to these and the other existential questions it poses and explores, but you will find yourself on a consummately human journey where every shadow is subject to the gambit of searchlights.

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