Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese Duff Brenna Book Lovers

book Down to a Sunless Sea by Mathias B. Freese

reviewed by Duff Brenna

Published in Issue No. 131 ~ April, 2008

The title story gives us the self-absorbed universe of Adam analyzing what we might call a Freudian life. The narrative is filled with Adam’s
continuous self-centered impressionistic examinations of growing up
needing the attentions of his mother, and later his stepmother, but
never becoming the center of anyone’s demonstrative love, approval, or
caring. As a child, Adam is baffled and full of odd phobias–his mother’s sealed off separateness that leaves him superficially in touch with her; fear of growing hair on his hands after he sees a barber “with wormlike hair” on his scissoring fingers; fear of growing older; fear of the compulsive rubbing of the backs of his feet (what does it mean?); “fear of loss; apprehensiveness–and vanity.”

Adam believes that some of his phobias are a result of his narcissism
fed by a grandmother who constantly praised his good looks and loved to
fondle him when he was a little boy–”she would gather him up upon her
lap… and jostle his testicles.” The family watches the fondling
complacently–so it must be normal. They are low middle class people, unlettered, Americanized. Some of them had once performed in vaudeville playing instruments and dancing. Adam spends his childhood around them
feeling cut off and “feeding on this implosively…” In time, he becomes the ultimate outsider, outside himself:

Adam always feels as though he is photographing himself behind a schizoid lens, for he is never in himself observing himself–holding the cap gun, for one. Rather, he is Adam staring at Adam from afar, the nether camera-work of a dream.

We are watching a boy living an intensely solitary childhood, a boy who relies on his creativity to make a world in which he can live imaginatively. When his mother dies of cancer (“Adam was twenty going on ten”), her replacement six months later is not willing or able to fulfill Adam’s craving for love and attention. He feels he must come to terms with diminishing expectations and “pierce [his] infantile amnesia,” tricky memories, the narcissism that feeds the sense that he must be the center (the omphalos) of the universe– ways of thinking that we all must come to terms with eventually if we are not to remain forever naïve, stunted, always emergent, never emerged. Adam does his best to deal with “the clammy indifference” of his stepmother and father and the world at large that doesn’t appreciate him by metaphorically gluing himself together and divesting himself of “the emotional lint” between his fingers. “So I feel it, so I am all that,” he says. Feeling trumps cogito ergo sum.

Down to a Sunless Sea is an abbreviated Proustian self-examination of a boy’s lonely childhood and the minutia surrounding his cipher self. It is, however, without the labyrinthine syntax of Remembrance of Things Past. Freese captures the essence in short, sometimes chopped off sentences that capture the fragmentation of his main character. The main theme beyond isolation seems to be that life never gets around to explaining itself and so we, like Adam, must create our own explanations and continue as always to fend for ourselves.

“It’s always been this way; it’s always going to be like this. I know it, and there’s no changing it.” Life has a rhythm that is only your rhythm and your rhythm will never vary. “I’ll Make It, I think” picks up where the first story leaves off. We are given a clubfooted boy crippled in body, mind and spirit. He separates himself from himself, like Adam did, and, in fact, fragments his own body by giving names to its appendages–”Ralph” is his left hand; “Lon” is his left foot. “Schmuck” is the rest of him, except for his penis, which he calls “David.” David seems to be the only part of the boy that works well–too well, perhaps. David’s demands drives him crazy, makes him into a Peeping Tom trying to get his jollies by spying on people. The boy hauling around his “heavy, dense, Frankensteinian” foot is a voyeur who, if he could, would probably have hiding places filled with pornography. He’s another soul cut off from normality, craving love but unable to find it, get near it, or live it vicariously. It’s all a problem of perception. The external doesn’t mirror the internal. Inside, he says, “I’m better. I’m me, untwisted, normal. Outside, well, that’s something else.”

You know, after a while, there’s a stalemate. You go on no matter how bad it is. The sickening thing is that you can adjust to almost anything. I guess that’s why the people in asylums are there. They refuse to go on. They swallow too much reality in a gulp and can’t get it down.

“The Chatham Bear” brings us another outsider, only this time it’s a
mysterious bear that comes out of the woods near the rural neighborhood of Canaan, New York. A bear is a traditional symbol of death and its appearance frightens all those who encounter it. One woman gets a rifle and sits on her porch waiting for the police; a man rushes for his shotgun and tries to trail the bear and shoots at it, the bear slipping ghostly away into the trees; another tries to run the bear down with his pickup but is so terrified that he can’t turn the key to start the engine. The impression is that the wild is closing in on the people of Canaan and it is, sort of.

What they don’t apprehend is that the wild is always and ever will be in their midst. It’s next door, it’s a block away–the wild is waiting everywhere. It’s that pit bull who attacks and kills your terrier; it’s that man who throws his woman into the car and beats her, while she tries to scratch his eyes out. “Why did the police appear so complaisant about it all, almost as if this occurrence was commonplace?” It is wild domesticity that gets cops killed. There are bears everywhere.

“Herbie” has a shoe fetish–he likes to shine them. His dad is brutal with Herbie and is vehemently against the shoe shine aspirations of his son. An understatement, actually. When Herbie tells his dad that he wants to open his own business, his father’s “complexion scrambled off his face, it became a drum, taut and featureless, beating out every conceivable reason against such an undertaking.” He slaps Herbie on both cheeks and berates him, the father’s breath “husky with pork,” pouring “pig mist… mixed with bile… unbearable for Herbie. “As long as I’m alive and paying the rent around here you don’t shine shoes,” father tells son. This is a father who never praises and is quick with
the laying on of the hands. Herbie eventually confronts him. The result is inevitable given the nature of bullies.

In only seven pages, “Alabaster” deftly, expertly catches what it means
to lose youth, beauty and the confidence to live in the moment, rather
than allowing the past to define us. An old lady survivor of the Holocaust makes friends with a nine year old boy. She frightens him, but he doesn’t run away. He keeps her company and she, briefly, lives vicariously through him. She tells him, “You know inside me there is a beautiful girl with alabaster arms. Don’t let this old body fool you.”

In a story called “Juan Peron’s Hands,” the unknown narrator takes
revenge on the former Argentine dictator Juan Peron. The narrator
sneaks into Peron’s tomb after he dies and with a machete severs the hands, symbols of an entire army that followed Peron’s commands and stole the soul of a dependent, groveling Argentina:… “those splayed hands of his, with palms as wide as dishes. Like umbrellas to shield us, his hands enveloped us, placed us in shadow, anointed us fools.”

“Little Errands” creates an unforgettable, pitiful, yet humorous personality in four pages. The unknown narrator is an obsessive-compulsive personality, compulsively searching outside the mail drop to see if letters he mailed actually went inside. Did the letters go in the bag or not? Were the envelopes sealed? Did they have stamps?

The hope is that I mailed them; the fear is that I’ve lost them, somewhere in or about the mailbox, I wish I had checked more carefully. Yet it nags at me, and yet I refuse to go back to it. It doesn’t make sense. I worry about the letters, have they been delivered? He also worries about leaving the radio on. He’s obsessed with his key slipping into the lock on his door. He’s obsessed in the way all compulsive people are. Think Dostoevsky: Think Notes from Underground, all the obsessing on letters written and sent–and unsent:

I never sent that letter. I get gooseflesh at the mere thought of what would’ve happened if I had sent it! (132, MacAndrews trans, Signet 1961).

On the morrow I will write him a letter clearly expressing my motives.
Certainly, surely, it will be mailed (66, “Little Errands,” Freese).

Freese’s stories are full of angst and confusion, each one asking “Who am I? Who are you?” His main characters are isolates unable to make connections. The weight of childhood experiences is a permanent condition no matter how old you are. Stories of children raised in melancholy homes lead us to understand that forever-after their life is a melancholy way station where they wait for nothing–for death. It’s a crazy but credible universe Freese has created. Every story glistens with bitter truths, edgy truths about twisted human relationships, lack of love, the inexplicable lives we live. Each says maybe you haven’t experienced life this way, but many others have–it is their truth and one day you might know what it means to live a shadow figure yourself.

In sum: Down to a Sunless Sea is a cri d’coeur, heart wrenching yet sometimes humorous as well. The writing is repeatedly brilliant. The probing intelligence behind these stories gives us a world of damaged people who are baffled about what their experiences mean. On the odd occasion, one can see the author writing his way out of an emotional box. Life is a puzzlement full of desperate questions, morbid reveries, humorous ironies, inchoate longings, unfathomable experiences. What, if anything, lies beyond the trap of an unworkable world? Freese gives no answers. None of us do. We babble.

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Duff Brenna is the author of six novels, including The Book Of Mamie (University of Iowa Press, 1989) which won the Associated Writing Programs Award, and his most recent novel, The Law of Falling Bodies (Hopewell Publications, 2007). A Minnesota native who once tried his hand at running and owning a Wisconsin dairy farm, Brenna is currently a freelance writer living in Sun City, CA.