A review of The Ancestry of Objects written by Tatiana Ryckman published in Letters from Ache
Revelation finds form in a decomposing rodent shimmering on a path, in Tatiana Ryckman’s debut novel The Ancestry of Objects. The nameless narrator, in the choral pronoun we, says ‘that this is how we want to live. So full of life that it spills from every orifice. And for the first time we understand our grandparents’ blind persistence of the Holy Spirit, longing to be inhabited and consumed by it’. This life filled and emptied—by capital, by love, by religion—is an endless act. One that we come to understand here as the basis of the human condition.
But to gather and spend water we need an urn. In The Ancestry of Objects this urn is the house and the narrator’s body. One mimics the other—the house and its objects made haptic, the body inert. Though both speak of containment––‘the hollow wood door has a terrible new weight like a body, and we press against it tired but warm in the residual heat of yesterday’s sun.’
This fractured, compacted text brings into question the inevitability of a life. Because a house—a home—a body, a life, is loaded with the refuse of our ancestors, the weight of domesticity and its many institutions, given form on these pages in peeling cupboards, worn formica, water rings and picked pile carpets. And to live is to carry those burdens.
A young woman lives alone in the ‘long’ house of her childhood and carries those burdens. She was once contained within its walls by devout and cruel grandparents, and now, posthumous, by inertia and inheritance.
This unnamed narrator knows loss—her grandparents, an unfit deceased mother, from whom she was kept estranged, and now her job. This final blow shapes ‘the new meaningless of days’. She is considering suicide when she meets an older married man, David. Or rather, he meets her, at a bar—she is reading and solitary, which he takes to be impassive. And then, by chance, they meet again while she shops for loose beans in a grocery store. From our position, that is her position—omniscient—we come to understand this man as the thing that will fill the shape of her loneliness. But despite the dual meaning of ‘content’, to fill a thing isn’t to make it good or happy. We learn it in this house that is sly, thirsty and restrictive. ‘We rest our head against the front door,’ she says ‘waiting for it to let us leave.’ There, she suffers paralysis. She is a vessel, flesh in loose cotton, within a vessel. While David, the man, comes and goes as he pleases—yo-yo-ing between the material wants of his privileged life and visceral wants of disembodied sex with this woman whom he commands.
Adopting the proverbial limits of the narrator’s grandfather, ‘we’ joke that all good things come to an end. David leaves. Returns to his wife. We sense a shift. The narrator enacts—to fill the rooms with her new grief and turn him into the vessel and an explanation, ‘so that his departure marks only an inconvenient shifting to a new problem: ourself.’
But once she has filled him, the only way she knows how, she leaves too—through the door of the long house and out beyond the crest of the hill, which is when she finds the rodent and realises that new, better lives might be formed from the decomposition of those departed. So she vacates the house more frequently and eventually empties it of its objects, or buries them deep in the basement. ‘We are full with grief and grasping and want to empty ourself/life/the house. To remove the trash left by the years, to be gutted, to be made clean’ she says.
There is a glimmer of hope in the purged house and when David returns one final time, to do what he will with her across the counter as the faucet drips, she is lit up, but not by him—as if seeing herself for the first time. Such clarity unnerves him. “Are you okay?” he asks. “I’m fine” she says with a sanitised benevolence.
Ryckman’s trim debut foregoes chapters for fragments, or series of them, usually a couple of pages long, that function like the flash of a memory, incantations, proverbs. As a whole made of parts, the book is mimetic in form. In the moments preceding sex or touch or intimacy, it is thick with descriptive prose in haptics and surfaces marred in dust and sweat and come. There is an uncomfortable ease or undulation in rhythm and form—longer takes, and the convenience of flowing paragraphs—in later parts when she is led by David and his safe hand on the small of her back when she learns to swim. While elsewhere and more often and while contemplating suicide, she the narrator, leaves lone antithetical sentences on a page in an economy that marks the void, but also functions as refusal.
There is, however a veneer of classicism to Ryckman’s style—in prologue and fragmentary form—that disrupts from the inside out. Repetition in turns of phrase of opening lines feign a romantic lyricism, while equating to something altogether different. Her grandmother’s reprimand of ‘now now’ are loops throughout the text that snag us. She re-appropriates this classicism, and momentarily disarms, in the plurality of a Greek chorus in ‘we’ applied to a singular subject. The narrator is one body and a multitude of voices to articulate the self. And it is a self made up of those objects that are ancestors—a learnt experience, its scarring. The enduring presence of ‘we’ becomes heavy, at times confusing. In the opening pages of copulation the narrator says ‘We think Tits; we command him to Feel my tits, but we don’t know where the words come from or go.’ As such, she gives voice to our burden.
But on some basic level, we read the the narrator as impassive, inert, reaching paralysis and sexual submission. She admits that ‘the plot of our day takes on a beige vacancy,’ and in this inversion—of which there are many in this book—it is the plot that drives the character. There is irony in that too given her empty days. We think she is an empty thing to be filled, which is evinced by her namelessness but over the course of the book, such namelessness, and passivity, feels like an active removal—keeping something of herself. ‘We don’t explain the siren’s song of inertia’, she says, as if inertia becomes her one and only act of the will. She names David often, consumed by him and such consumption becomes maddening for us (though for other reasons): ’David never calls at midnight’; ‘David does not ask for our number’. But such echoes begin to sound like admissions—a speaking out, a naming. He comes in her without consent and she is ‘overwhelmed by the many places he occupies at once, stunned by this omnipresence.’ The everywhere omnipresent God David. A man who is transactional; is money, is child. But she too is powerful, omniscient, suspended just above the floor, ‘we watch’, she says, ’we once watched’. Her removal from herself—in grief—enables her to see David. We know all the men we’ve ever known in him, while the reverse is also true. ‘I don’t believe you’re so content, we say. If you were you wouldn’t be here.’
Ryckman reminds us that sin, purgatory, shame, repentance are forms of devotion twisted by the extremity of catholicism and served up in digestible wisdoms as incantations. Devotion is reaching. It is blind and urgent, which likens it to sex—and its questionable submissions—because ’to be a monk or crazy or a whore is the same thing, when he stands in this not real place.’ And later—‘you can fill the void with the teachings of the Lord and righteousness, or you can allow the world to fill it for you, but it will fill.’
The pacifist and mystic Simone Weil once said ‘Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.’ Ryckman, like Weil, is keen on inversions, both syntactically and in thought. She turns sentences inside out. The narrator speaks of a ‘persistent fear of intrusion butting against the persistent nothing that’s there, and our persistent feeling that it will always be nothing.’ While thoughts rebound—in memories of the future, and blind devotion, the disembodiment of a body, and embodiment of a house. And in the realisation, or revelation, that inertia can in fact be our final act.