At 715 pages, with a confoundingly serpentine story that sprawls across five decades, four continents and three wars, including murders, rapes and betrayals in numbers that challenge our concept of mathematics, Bob Shacochis’ new novel does not lend itself to a precise answer to the question, “What’s that book about?”
That is not a criticism. With a narrative that gathers steam until it’s a compulsion, with characters who fascinate even when they do not resonate, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul cannot be put down even as it darts through almost impenetrable jungles of politics, theology and deviant sexuality. It sheds multiple literary skins: neo-noir, Conradian tragedy, even something approaching journalism. It eludes categorization. But, despite a couple of near misses, it never loses its way or its ability to drag you along with it.
In the end it’s a sort of post-modern horror story, a chronicle of all the evil that men did in the last half of the 20th century in the name of ideology and religion. At one point, in what passes as a coming-of-age scene, a teenage girl beset by calamities (too many, too complex and too soul-killing to enumerate) finds herself “frozen by the immensity of loss and immensity of the world’s malevolence and its reverberations in her blood.” And that’s what The Woman Who Lost Her Soul is about.
At first, The Woman reads like one of those novels (think The Stars At Noon or The Long Night Of White Chickens) of Americans drifting existentially through the violence and madness of some haywire Third World hellhole, nominally trying to solve a mystery that may not even be real in a blighted moonscape where nothing is knowable and nothing would matter if it was because all morality and political purpose has vanished.
The hellhole in this case is Haiti in the mid-1990s, where U.S. troops, trying to restore order after a decade of governmental collapses and coups, are beginning to dimly perceive that there was never any order to begin with. The mystery is the murder of a curiously unsympathetic American photojournalist named Jackie Scott, long on carnal allure and short on emotional core. An American diplomat’s casual dismissal — “bimbo, cokehead, gold digger” — is actually charitable compared to a self-analysis Jackie once offered in an unguarded moment: “I’ve lost my soul.”
But a pair of men bedazzled by her extravagant lies and bedeviled by her pathological sexual teasing can’t quite bring themselves to turn loose. One of them is the dutiful but troubled Green Beret Eville Burnette, the other the brooding human rights lawyer Tom Harrington.
They, too, may be losing their souls. Burnette’s patriotism has led him into a sucking swamp of secret operations of increasingly dubious intent, while the corruption and brutality of Haiti have robbed Harrington of his conviction that the dignity of the dead can be restored by documenting them.
Yet their investigation leads nowhere but to blind alleys and dead ends. Was she the victim of a newly acquired gangster husband? Or bandits? Or just the random violence thrown off by the chaos of Haiti like radiation from a nuclear pile? The interest in her death by the CIA and the FBI seem to momentarily invest it with significance, but ultimately they seem to be chasing their own spooky tails.
The investigation eventually implodes, threatening to suck The Woman’s narrative right along with it. But as the story broadens, extending backward as well as forward, a more complex and intriguing portrait of Jackie begins to emerge, the end product of a chain reaction of generational disasters wrought by the Cold War.
The story veers from the Balkans to Istanbul to the Caribbean, peopled with spies, assassins and Strangelovian madmen of various ideological and religious stripes, yet universally loyal to the Stalinist wisdom that you can’t making an omelette without breaking some eggs. One of the most startling aspects of the novel is the way Shacochis effectively maps his chronology with invasions, bombings and massacres. His description of the Balkans — “where empires and religions grate against each other to produce a limitless supply of bloody slush flowing east and west into the gutters of civilizations” — could apply to the century itself.
There is much to like in The Woman, and also much to loathe, particularly the author’s self-indulgent tendency to fall in love with what he imagines to be his own lyrical prose. His self-regard expresses itself most fulsomely in the book’s dialogue, shaped by too many years in English classes taught by professors who believe that language is literary in inverse proportion to its comprehensibility.
But if you can deaden yourself against the occasional scene in which Green Beret captains adorn their orders in the poetry of W.H. Auden and are riposted by sergeants spouting T.S. Eliot., The Woman is a wild, deadly ride. You won’t want to let go.
Glenn Garvin is The Miami Herald’s television critic.