The Conditions of Love

June 20, 2013

The Conditions of Love ,

Dale M. Kushner, Grand Central Publications, 2013



Although we may harbor desires to restore some of our youth, few of us desire to return to adolescence. Adolescence is one of the only diseases that age can cure. Starting with the titular denial of unconditional love, Dale Kushner, through the voice of Eunice, a preternaturally wise adolescent, reconditions love as intermittent drama constantly redefined by struggles with loss, guilt, and acceptance. Intimately navigable and eidetic as a pirate’s map , Ms. Kushner explores the dreamscape geography of emotion from apartments, cabins, carnivals, movies and farm communities. From Wild Pea to Vieuxville Eunice’s interiority continually spirals outward through a hybrid realm of altered Nature, hubris and art.  Her conditions of love arrive as terrible miracles with epiphanies of forgiveness and acceptance.

The Conditions of Love is a philosophical romance and narrative Bildungsroman in the classical sense wherein the heroine, Eunice, must confront and divest herself of illusions to arrive at the realm of the spiritually genuine. Eunice is heroically bright and unconscionably optimistic. The teenage narrator is harrowingly alone, drifting through isolated islands in the marshy seas of the upper Midwest. Eunice constantly acquires and escapes appellations as she enters adventures,”Cissy, CC, Cisskala, CC Dumpling, Bunny, Moucheroo, a brief period misnomered as Iris, Sparrow and ultimately the Nomen of  memoirist. Her identity as a young girl is amorphous, she adapts to situations like a mirror with reflection and blank. She allows the variety of her rescuers to project their weaknesses onto her, while her own peripatetic relations seem guided by ironic divine whispers. Eunice roams the novel not so much as a feminine Odysseus, but Telemachus, another child of lost wanderers. She too is haunted by living with abandonment and myth, and struggling with her incability to accomplish the tasks before her.  Eunice isn’t looking for Troy; she’s looking for home.

The temporality of her adolescence is merely a literary device to articulate the problem of enduring constant impermanence. The philosophical message of the novel is pitched in the emotional register of an astonished teenager, who asks awkward difficult questions perhaps only person of that age and intelligence can reasonably present. But that is one of the reasons we venerate and fear precocity, it is unpredictable knowledge. It is quite literally a twisted link to the mythic, a divine gift with a bill attached. These wonder children arrive like the infant Kronos struggling with their scythes, or more accurately, ours.  Like Eunice, they are sharp edged shards of a magic mirror or halfling creatures at home in strange seas.

Ms. Kushner’s Eunice self-consciously proceeds in the stereotype of an artist at work as she describes the events in this strongly visual novel.  She is simultaneously immersed and disengaged. Although the novel is intimate, Ms. Kushner often directs the reader from odd distances and perspectives through unschooled drawings, recordings of opera that must be listened to in reverent silence, model planes, movie vignettes, an unread book of poems bound by a bracelet, hidden letters, found photographs, and unfinished paintings each containing desperate gestures to repair, or express loss. References and allusions to various art forms are commonplace.  The writing is strewn with failed attempts of people struggling with limited artifice, forms that are sentimental, but incapable of full expression. Many of the novel’s passages of description are frequently poetically wrought as paintings lingering in detail and metaphor to nuance feelings her young narrator is incapable of articulating. Others provide the gallery of tableaux, the album of images that quickly flips context to memory.

The most intriguing aspect of the novel is Eunice’s attempt to speed her maturation with complicated relationships with wise, but damaged adults. She constantly arrives and leaves, and as every adolescent must, bringing the gift of abandonment. She engages and leaves Mern, a mother created of appearance and loss, a father who is an amusement park device, a series of surrogate parents, and finally the man who must make a gruesome sacrifice to her art and happiness. The three characters Mern, Rose and Fox offer Eunice romantic illusions, separation, sympathy, and union. She changes their frozen loss into restored capacity to dream and live. Although archetypical parent visions, the overly social mother, the earth mother, the farmer father, the detail and gesture Ms. Kushner imparts to each of these characters lets them breathe and grow beyond their prescribed images.

It’s a tough book to survive as character, animal or dream. Although her prose is painterly delicate and at times romantic, Ms. Kushner tells a brutal tale. Relationships are episodic and refuge temporary while the mechanisms of her world are insensate and unstoppable.  Eunice decimates phylum and species leaving behind a parakeet, a dead turtle, a hacksawed lamb, a one horned ram in strangled by a fence, two charred cats, a miscarriage, a burnt child and a man’s hands. She is quite Dickensian in her willingness to visit suffering on her characters and their worlds of illusion in pursuit of their redemption. And like Dickens her serial plotline meanders more like visiting than rising action. Only those characters who love Eunice from ordinary distance or in ignorance are spared the spiritual triage needed for salvation. Her conditions of love are severe; only in art will love endure, but only by release of guilt and desire will her characters find fulfillment.

The Conditions of Love speaks in an oblique way to the tide of digital images, memes and ghost written memoirs that currently surround us. The obsession to preserve every moment that removes us from pursuing the actual dream of our life makes this rural survival tale relevant. Like Eunice we are surrounded by addicts of nostalgia, frozen romances and self-imposed isolations. The novel ends in a pastiche of jottings for a nearly finished memoir, conversations with dead, marked exhibits and tidy dénouement. We leave Eunice as an adult, fulfilled, scattered and unknowingly in need of rescue by an adolescent.


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