June 8, 2009
The Stories of Devil-Girl
***** 5 stars – Poetic Tale of Devil-Girl is Rich, Harsh, and Hopeful
Reading Anya Achtenberg’s novella “The Stories of Devil-Girl” is a unique experience. Describing “The Stories of Devil-Girl” is difficult. Readers really need to experience the language for themselves. To give a taste of the style, here is a passage from the novel’s opening when Devil-Girl describes the circumstances of her birth in New York:
I was born here as the one I had violated during another lifetime, I’m sure of it. I was born here to walk the avenue between life and death. To fill out the forms of denial. To rave in the road and stop traffic with my stillness, as some do with their anger. To prowl the bootless alleyways, to drink the spoiled fluids of men. To flail beneath the Devil. To sprout breasts in the lunar lots of Bushwick, where the maws of an old Frigidaire caught my friend Penelope and she froze to a fetus, knees to lips, gray fists clenched.
Devil-Girl’s first memory is of someone trying to strangle her—someone she later believes must be the mother who clearly does not want her. Her father is not much more friendly. When she leaves home and begins giving men what they want so she can survive, she compares herself to the monster in Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” who was “unnatural, bereft of a determinable childhood.” When Devil-Girl learns about Lilith, the woman in Jewish tradition depicted as Adam’s first wife, driven from Eden as evil, she takes on a similar identity. Devil-Girl encounters perverts and sadists who relish the chance to use and abuse her. But despite her negative experiences, Devil-Girl has a hopeful spirit; she senses there is some good in her, and she becomes a kinder version of Lilith; while the mythical Lilith sought children to punish and kill, Devil-Girl will ultimately find others like her whom she can protect and nurture.
Devil-Girl undergoes many trials. She suffers, she questions life, and she finds irony in the way her mother calls upon God and he answers by fulfilling her curses. Devil-Girl knows no one will pray for her, so she decides to learn how to pray herself, but ultimately, she learns self-reliance. She is Jewish—she knows those who have escaped the holocaust, seen the numbers tattooed on their arms. But a young man who wants to fight for Israel tells her, she has done nothing for their people—he calls her “Lilith” and “Whore of Babylon.” Devil-Girl, however, comes to realize her people are not limited to Jews but to anyone who has suffered like her.
Ultimately, writing becomes Devil-Girl’s salvation. She leaves New York; she travels somewhat aimlessly, but eventually, she finds hope in “the summer of the Minnesota Plains.” She gets an education and becomes a teacher. She shares her story with others; she encourages her students. She realizes she is a miracle.
The novella’s plot is not very complicated. What is complicated is the language, or rather it is complex, hyperbolic, poetic and forceful. A poetic life is built from a world of misery; Achtenberg’s Devil-Girl is the quintessential individual, raging against the world around her—trying to find her place within the culture and family where she was born, which doesn’t really match the mainstream society. She must learn what a woman can be, rather than what men want her to be. Devil-Girl speaks for everyone who has ever been lost and tried to find him or herself. She moves forward even when the world would hold her back. She is aware of how much farther into the nightmare her life might have gone. Grateful to have turned back, she tries to ease the pain of others so they do not go down the dark path.
In the “Introduction,” Achtenberg explains, “Devil-Girl has been through many incarnations.” Achtenberg initially started writing the book as a poetry collection until she realized the story was better suited for prose. Nevertheless, many of the lines of poetry were retained and rewritten in prose form, which gives the book its rhythmic, poetic language. I found myself often caught up in the language, and then had to go back to reread passages because the style I relished distracted me from the content. The novella is also episodic—the individual chapters or sections average only a few pages each with a few exceptions. No clear chronology or transition is given between them; we find Devil-Girl in a new place in her life with each section.
In a few places, I felt the episodic writing did not always make the transitions in Devil-Girl’s life clear, but at the same time, the poetic language would probably have suffered from too much detail. If I have a complaint, it’s that the book is not longer; wishing a book to be longer is a good thing; I felt I would have liked to get to know Devil-Girl better. Achtenberg has stated that her book is partially autobiographical. Like Devil-Girl, Achtenberg is Jewish, from New York, and a teacher. But whatever else of the story is autobiographical is transcended by the creation of Devil-Girl as a fictional everywoman. Her character speaks to us, it makes us see the world anew, a world often ugly, but nevertheless, one where hope can lead to change.
For more information, about Anya Achtenberg and her poetic, socially relevant writing, visit www.anyaachtenberg.com.
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