At the onset of her first novel, Requiem for Locusts, Wendy Parciak makes a command: "Consider a street, any street, in a neighborhood...where the ties that bind people together have loosened and often broken apart." Her tone is depressed and disenchanted, though nonetheless captivating. After all, which one of us is not at least vaguely disillusioned with the modern age, the atomized society in which we often live among, but not really with, each other? Parciak's dystopic vision of Locust Street, populated by neighbors who don't know each other's names and whose only connection is their street and a community-by-default, is a familiar one. And it's alluring for exactly that reason.
Parciak takes this familiarity and runs with it, down the concrete lane of Locust Street and into the interiors of the homes and heads of its residents. We recognize these characters as emblems of a pathetic society: an old lady cursing today's youth; a timid neurologist; a bored but imaginative 13 year old; an attorney and an aerobics instructor who seem to hate each other, and their toddler whose first word is "car," but in her nanny's native tongue, "coché." They are not especially endearing and don't, at first, warrant much sympathy, but Parciak's omniscient voice snakes in and out of the dialogue, a stream of consciousness that forges our relationship to her characters. We know, for instance, the inter-workings of their minds, their neuroses and their inner-monologues before we know how society perceives them. She ties us to them, however despicable they may seem.
Parciak gradually deepens our empathy with these characters by disclosing their turbulent emotional and psychological states, and by revealing their traumatic pasts. The more intricacies these characters reveal, the more familiar they become.
But Parciak introduces a new challenge to our notion of familiarity and empathetic ability with the Zaferatos family, a couple of circus performers who move to Locust Street with their mentally ill daughter, Marzita. The daughter's unknown illness causes her violent hallucinations, delusions, a wanderlust that makes her capable of conquering 12-foot fences and tall hedges, and the ability to hear or at least intuit her neighbors' thoughts. Marzita's arrival functions as a sort of return of the repressed: Her very presence signifies something her neighborhood (and society at large) has chronically ignored.
Requiem for Locusts is an intensely personal project for Parciak, a Missoulian whose sister has inspired her to do much thinking and feeling about mental illness and society. In an entry on her blog, Parciak writes: "We all have experience with the mentally ill. Understanding, I believe, is the first step towards tolerance, towards the building of families and communities that can include their mentally disabled members to the fullest extent. If we try to understand people who suffer from mental illness, we can help to usher in a new era of compassion." This is the understanding that Parciak tries to achieve in Requiem for Locusts. And by the end of the novel, this "era of compassion" becomes apparent.
hardcover. Two Canoes Press
$27.95, 432 Pages
The book is filled with deeply sad and beautifully written passages in which Parciak captures — and saliently critiques — society's view of mental illness. The streams of consciousness of Marzita's family members, rants steeped in love, are capable of producing tears: "And she came home with doubt, daddy what's wrong with me, why is my leg so funny, why is my mind so slow, yes he tried to explain and he tried not to mind, and she came home with sadness, daddy why do they tease me why don't I have friends, no he couldn't explain and he couldn't help notice and he did mind he minded very much for SHE WAS HIS BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER."
Marzita's experience does not fit within society's rigid framework, and so she offers an alternative one. Her perception of time is convoluted. "When I was old," she recounts, or envisions for her future. She has an illogical but profound understanding of nature. Her aptitude for languages is visible in the French phrases she scrawls on walls in crayon, and audible in the words she recites to herself in a moment of existential insight: "The girl chuckled. ‘Sum,’ she said. ‘I am.’ ‘Eram. Eró. I was. I will be.’" In the same way that Marzita affects those around her — she shows up in her neighbors' trees, on their porches, in their sandboxes — Parciak's account of the girl's inimitable sensibility affects our understanding of experience: Marzita's way of being in the world is as valid as any.
We are vaguely familiar with the scene that Parciak sets at the novel's outset, but through Marzita the familiar becomes uncanny. She gives the people of Locust Street a history, and as the novel's title implies, memorializes the human experience. Parciak reminds us that we can relate to each other however "crazy" we may appear. Written simply and in colorful prose, capable of transporting us right to wherever Locust Street is in our minds. Requiem for Locusts reminds us what it means to be a person living among people.
Wendy Parciak reads from Requiem for Locusts at Fact & Fiction Friday, Nov. 21, at 7 PM.
Requiem for Locusts opens like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with a narrator introducing a neighborhood: "Consider a street, any street, in a neighborhood. Place this neighborhood in any town in any country in the world, or, for accuracy, place it in an affluent one, where the ties that bind people together have loosened and often broken apart."
Indeed, Locust Street in this first novel by Missoula resident Wendy Parciak is an affluent one. There’s a yuppie couple and their 2-year-old daughter, a shy old doctor whose closest friends are his cat and his garden, and a reclusive old spinster, Willow Stokes. But the neighborhood also has room for a 13-year-old girl being raised by a single dad and a circus troupe living out of a crazy colored schoolbus.
It is also home to a girl with mental illness. One of the most valuable offerings of Requiem for Locusts is its implicit insistence that we now begin to include the mentally ill in the way we look at our neighborhoods.
The first part of the novel spins the web of characters, each in his or her own setting, each given equal weight. Parciak does a fine job with many of them, but the character whom she realizes most powerfully is Marzita, the "freak girl" with the awkward gait and schizophrenia-like symptoms: compulsive writing on books and walls and furniture, cutting things up and tucking the pieces away, hallucinating and talking to the voices in her head, spending much of her time during these psychotic episodes in a fantasy world more hell than heaven, more confusion than clarity.
Marzita’s hallucinations are finely captured in the many interior monologues spliced throughout the narrative: "Today I was so bad I saw bad things, eyes and frowns and guns pointing pointing pointing. The black and blue eyes look up at me and drag me down, down deeper than the drugs in my poison blood drag me every day. First I try to sink, want to sink, push Mama away. Then something in me says, no not time for that, and I am pulled back to the surface by Mama’s eyes. Still gray life-rafts." Think of Benjy’s monologue at the beginning of Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. Whereas Benjy’s chaotic view of his world is the result of a developmental disability, however, Marzita’s is the result of mental illness. What her mental illness in fact stems from we learn near the end of the novel, and it is a fascinating discovery.
Nor is Marzita the only character in the novel who experiences mental illness. Janice St. Coeur, like Parciak herself who has intimate knowledge of mental illness within her own family, carries inside her the memory of a sister who suffered mental illness.
Though Janice is not as fully realized as some of the other characters for most of Requiem for Locusts, she takes on depth and seriousness near the end of the novel when she comes to terms with the memory of this sister: "'Jennifer,’ she whispered, turning around and around, wanting to call out her name but afraid she would wake the neighbors. Wanting to find her sister after losing her for so long, but knowing with a sinking feeling that she would not. Wanting to have a sister again, even one who was crazy, who loved Janice unconditionally without knowing how imperfect Janice really was."
In fact, many of the characters - Marzita, Janice and her yuppie husband, Dr. Norton and the old spinster, the 13-year-old Eugenia who spices up her day with fantasized narrative flourishes-carry on interior monologues, and this becomes one of the threads of the story that binds the people of Locust Street gradually together into a more empathetic whole.
If you prefer the sparse, understated language of the modern novel, you will have to make some accommodations when you read Requiem for Locusts. Parciak’s style is at times old-fashioned: "Demetrios Zeferatos stretched as he clambered out of bed. He yanked the curtain aside and grinned at the sun, already bright white in the blue sky and rising above the telephone wires." At times it is lush:
" ... his head filled with an image of an inflorescence of chokecherry flowers, which developed as if filmed by time-lapse photography. Small yellow-greenish white petals opened, then fell off, pushed out of the way by the green ovaries, which swelled and turned rose, then red, than maroon." Parciak has a degree in ecology, and her descriptions of backyard flora and fauna are small treasures. After a while, these descriptions have a cumulative effect, showing us nature’s model of life, rooted in the dark soil, striving upward toward light. There is a musical motif in the novel, too - Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana - whose lyrics have us look at what is dark and tormented as a foundation for love and life.
Although at one juncture, the novel seems poised to become a romance, it veers distinctly away from that genre. Instead, Parciak prizes moments of intimacy as when Marzita’s parents, exhausted after an anxious night looking for their missing daughter, console one another. Prized, too, is the intimacy of an old woman and a little girl, of a shy old doctor and a cat, and of an estranged married couple brought back together by trauma.
If you like a forward-moving plot, you will find the penultimate conclusion of Requiem for Locusts spectacular as fireworks. The conclusion itself is less dramatic, more sobering: A scene in a hospital quite true to life for many of the more severely mentally ill people in our communities. But by this time, Marzita has achieved something important: She has been a catalyst in her neighborhood, helping to break down the barriers that have separated people and knit again the ties that bind them.
In reading Requiem for Locusts, we see how many of the traumatic experiences of our lives-loneliness, estrangement, old age and mental illness-need to be openly acknowledged and accepted as the very experiences that can bring us together.
Mary Cheadle Babl is an editor from Seattle.
There are few books I have read where I stopped mid-paragraph and said, "Wow. This is really good writing." Wendy Parciak's debut novel Requiem for Locusts is one of them...
...The residents of Locust street are multi-faceted and interesting characters. Each chapter is from a different character's point of view and it's truly fascinating to see how they see the world. Not one of the neighbors knows the others on a first-name basis and each lives very private, secluded lives. What is most powerful about this novel is that this could be any street, perhaps yours. How well do you know your neighbors? What sort of fascinating lives could they be living, that you are completely unaware of?
...Reading this book was a real pleasure. I was enthralled by Parciak's characters and disappointed it had to end. I have a new appreciation for mental illness and the patience and love it requires from families. If there were only one thing I could say to Mrs. Parciak about her first novel it would be this: Brava!
Click here to read the complete review by Jennifer Melville for Story Circle Book Reviews reviewing books by, for, and about women