Who could have predicted what happened to the Lacuna Cabal Book Club as they endeavoured to read the Epic of Gilgamesh in its original Cuneiform?

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Runner & Ruby Coghill



There’s a book by Hillel Schwartz called The Culture of the Copy. It’s a beautifully written, seemingly influential, phenomenological approach to the idea of facsimile over many centuries of human culture (one example: he attempts to locate the origin of the phrase The Real McCoy and learns that origins themselves are legion.)

In the last century, we have been unable to escape the age of mechanical reproduction. It fills my own days more than I usually realize, from the moment I might see an image of the Mona Lisa in the newspaper to a comic routine on youtube or a real-time conversation with my brother on Skype.

Shwartz’s book makes the case for the copy being itself a symbol of post-post-modern-modernism etcetera ad infinitum… It’s the world that the members of the Lacuna Cabal Montreal Young Women’s Book Club are living in when they encounter one of the oldest stories in the world. Their retelling of the Epic of Gilgamesh is a modern mirror image, a copy of a copy of a story someone once told. Carved cuneiform in clay at play in the modern world.

It also brings the modern world to a stop.



It’s possible to be both a copy and an original. Runner and Ruby Coghill, the twins that preside over The Last Days of the Lacuna Cabal, are by no means copies of each other. One of them isn’t even alive anymore.

When I read The Culture of the Copy, I had already decided that the book was only going to tell the story of The Epic of Gilgamesh on the surface. Its undertoad might actually, (I thought), croak out the tale of two Sumerian goddess sisters, Inanna and Erishkigal. One was the goddess of fecundity, the other the queen of death. They never saw each other. Theirs was, in Runner’s words, ‘the best and oldest story of twins.’

Runner tells the story better than I do.

It’s about Inanna, goddess of life, descending to the realm of her sister Erishkigal, because it was the only place in the universe that she had never been, and she was curious. So she went. To get there, she had to pass through seven gates. As she went through each, the guards would make her remove a piece of her garment, until when she came before her sister Erishkigal, Queen of the Dead, she was … naked and ashamed, and then her sister struck her dead and hung her body on a nail. That’s how they tell it: hung her body on a nail. Erishkigal was jealous of her sister’s primacy in the upper world, and wanted her to stay down there. These two women, though. They were so close as to be almost the same person. When Inanna’s servants came down to claim the body, they found Erishkigal moaning and doubled over, as if she herself were experiencing the physical pain of her sister’s death. And she wouldn’t let her go. It was like they had to be together, the two sisters, but also they couldn’t be together, and the only way Inanna could be returned to her place in heaven was if someone she loved would come and take her place.
Gilgamesh himself is a character who is caught in the universe of these two sisters — a universe some of us are familiar with, in which death follows life and is itself eternal. One wonders why it can’t be the other way around? As it is, for example, in the Christian universe, wherein we might as well just up and bleed the world, drop a few bombs and hasten our way to the afterparty?

The Sumerians, in short, were saner with their religion than we are. And they had a saner way of demonstrating to a leader how he should be good to his people.

And Runner and Ruby Coghill preside over the universe of the Lacuna Cabal just as Inanna and Erishkigal do with the Sumerians.

Which is not to say I like the idea of this book being presented in the genre of metafiction. No way. All these characters — Missy, Emmy, Coby, Du, Romy, Aline, Priya, Neil (though their names have been changed to protect the innocent) — are masters of their own destinies. The narrative does not govern them (despite what the Coach House book jacket might say). Rather, it is their love for the narrative that governs them. This distinction makes all the difference in the world. It’s something that can happen to real people, Don Quixote being a perfect example.



Not that Don Quixote is a real person, but you know what I mean.

To paraphrase the narrators, Jennifer & Danielle (whose names have not been changed to protect the innocent): Anyone who think we’re making metafiction can just fuck off. Maybe later we’ll let our convictions in this matter get a bit sketchy, but for now…

I will however confess to the presence of a little bit of the supernatural though. I recently read an interview with a Canadian playwright whom I admire, who said she just can’t help believing that ghosts belong in serious fiction. It's because she’s Irish, she said.

I'm Irish too. At least partly.

Which is how I can bring my twin sisters back together in the realm of serious fiction, even though one of them is dead.

And then there are the narrators—the so-called anti-twins—Jennifer and Danielle, who feel they are not worthy of telling this story yet are the only ones who can.

The reader might be surprised to read all these highborn claims connected to what is after all a story of shallow little book club being told by a pair of unscholarly girls.

But it’s my hope that the reader won’t make the mistake of confusing the narrative voice (humble, self-abasing, attempting to prove at every turn that they are neither worthy or bright, like the copiers of the Gilgamesh Epic for the library of the great king of Nineveh, Ashurbanipal, who conducted their work in chains)

... for the authorial voice (which asserts that, yes, J&D are worthy. and yes, J&D are bright; and yes, J&D can achieve the grace that comes from steeping oneself in great literature.)

These storytellers aren’t like the tweeter whose post I read on Twitter the other day, a teenage girl who wrote that she would rather claw her eyes out than ever be subjected to the Epic of Gilgamesh again. J&D’s approach is somewhat more adventurous. And they take their task so seriously that they seek to track their own growing awareness in the telling.

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