Fragmentation of Form and Content in Mary Swan’s The Deep and Carole Maso’s Ava

In order to compose a story with parallel form and content, the author must shape the form not only to be worthy of its content, but also to etch a deeper echo of that which already exists in the text. By tracing the simultaneous fragmentation of form and content – from character development to reader response to non chronological arrangement of text – through Mary Swan’s The Deep and Carole Maso’s AVA, one can more aptly understand how the authors establish a symbiotic relationship between form and content in their stories.

Fragmentation in The Deep is achieved by telling the story through shifting narrators, with subtitles used to further pronounce the separation of these pieces. The story begins with a section called AFTER, followed by HOW TO BEGIN, which by virtue of names alone establishes that the novella will not be told with a chronological beginning, middle, and end. As a result, this stirs a fragmentation in the reader from the very start, renders the reader unsure of what to grasp onto within the text, even more so because the identity of the narrator is not clear beyond that it must be more than one person due to the pronoun choice. In a fragment of the last sentence of AFTER – “we wonder if someone has died” (Swan 5) – the reader stumbles upon two mysteries: just who makes up we, and who could have died?

Soon, it becomes clear that the plot of the story focuses alternately on either the physical reality of the twins Esther and Ruth or the idea of them. The story is told not only from their collective and then separate points of view, it is also told from the point of view of their father, brother, headmistress, nanny, and others. This lack of one finite narrator fragments the reader’s experience of the text to a certain extent, because in most sections save for the ones Swan titles with the narrator’s name (such as THE HEADMISTRESS – I and II), the reader must delve into the words without knowing their point of origin, unsure of the frame of reference to bring into the reading, unsure of what sort of information is forthcoming.

Here, the shifting cast of narrators and the fragmented style of narration helps articulate the actual fragmentation that exists within the plot line; at first, the twins are presented as one unit, while the rest of the world is grouped into another one, demonstrating a breaking apart of the twins from the world. Initially, Esther and Ruth seem defined – by themselves and others – as the same, as having only joint memories and experiences. Until page forty-seven, Esther and Ruth narrate their story together, using only the plural pronoun “we” (5), clearly not feeling any need to distinguish between themselves as individual people with individual wants, needs, and desires.

Strangely enough, perhaps, the reader does not identify herself as part of the world that the twins are fragmented from, so much as she feels connected to them due to Swan’s choice to often use the twins as narrators, leaving the text peppered with the inclusive pronoun we. This causes the reader to feel her own presence asserting itself in the pages, fragmenting the story and its narrators even further.

The implications of having a changing cast of narrators, in addition to readers who begin to tangibly identify themselves in the we and us of the pages is two-fold; first, it fragments the ownership of the story. It can not be assumed that the story is Swan’s alone, as she wrote a text that includes the reader, nor can it be assumed that the story belongs to the twins, as so many different people in addition to them tell their story. The story, then, seems to belong to no one and possibly everyone, a fragmented idea which springs forth from this fragmented text. Secondly, it fragments the idea of having a main character at all. Besides the fact that Esther and Ruth are already plural, two instead of one, the reader who begins to identify herself through pronoun usage starts to play a shadow role alongside them and wonders if Swan, too, feels her presence in we, bringing the main character tally up to at least four, only two of which are named on the page.

Regardless, the distance present between the twins and the world is evident, and the understanding that the twins have of this world outside themselves generally seems limited, if not somewhat lacking. When Esther and Ruth mention their mother, who later dies from the complications of their birth, they say merely, “we killed her, of course; everyone knew that” (7). The disconnect forged here between mother and daughters seems startling in so far that it feels somewhat cruel and daunting; the twins even laugh that she calls them her “darlings” (ibid.), repeating it to each other “at night, lying in our narrow beds, holding hands across the gulf between us” (ibid.). Here, the physical gulf between them – although they are touching in spite of it – stands in sharp contrast to their emotional connection; the reader even gets the sense that it is because they have each other that they do not need their mother. Those who care so little for their mother can hardly be expected to feel much for the rest of their family, either. When their brother James dies, they “were sad, in a strangely abstract way. Like hearing about the brother of someone you went to school with” (18), this lack of sentiment further widening the divide between themselves and everyone else.

Esther and Ruth, however, must feel some compassion – if they do not feel a particular need – for the rest of society considering that they sign up to help with the war effort in France. Being in another country, though, suffering exposure to the bleak reality of war firsthand, causes the twins to feel a separation from who they had been before in America. Esther and Ruth try to maintain their sense of identity by thinking about home, feeling that it was necessary to “remind yourself, keep on reminding yourself who you were” (30), but even this attempt to maintain their prior identities through memory only proves that the alienation from those identities had already occurred. War, then, causes fragmentation in both Esther’s and Ruth’s self-identity, and leaves the twins vulnerable for more fragmentation to follow.

The Headmistress, in her second section of narration, comments that “they never spoke together, but there was no hesitation, no collision, conversation flowing easily from one or the other so that the effect was of talking to a single person” (20), solidifying the reader’s interpretation of the twins as one being. Indeed, the twins are not even mentioned by their actual names until page twelve, and afterwards, Mrs. Moore – their supervisor at the canteen – continues on to say that they had the “same voice, same expressions, moved the same way. And always we . . . we did this, we did that, never I.” The twins are also described in non-human terms, as “skittish white horses, dream horses” (9) and as “angels” (11), suggesting that people generally view them as entities separate from the rest of humanity. The split between themselves and the world the twins experience, then, is not merely a separation enacted by themselves, but a separation somewhat imposed upon them by the people who see, hear, and know them.

The fragmentation inherent in the plot line shifts in another direction when the twins begin to doubt their cohesion to each other, doubt that they could possibly have shared each memory, each thought, each word. While stationed in France, Esther and Ruth seem to realize “there must have been times when one of us was in a room, but not the other. When only one of us saw something, heard something, was spoken to. But we don’t remember anything like that” (33). In the next breath, however, the twins cast more doubt on their shared experiences by continuing, “and if there was a split second, the tiniest of moments, briefer than the blink of an eye, when one of us said something – then in that briefest of moments the other had the memory, could hear, feel, and taste it” (ibid.). These quotations show the conflict the twins experience in their fragmentation; they begin to recognize the separation that surely exists to some extent between them and then deny it just as fast, only to reaffirm that it does exist moments later – but that it does not matter.

But it does matter, and entirely, because soon one of the twins is forced to think in terms of the pronoun “I” for the first time; Ruth wakes up to hear Esther and their friend Hugh laughing together while she had assumed her sister was asleep with her. Here we see the fragmentation of one twin from the other rendered precisely in two sentences: “on the drive home we slept; it was completely dark. I woke once and the two of them were laughing at something I hadn’t heard” (47). This sudden break between the twins, after twenty-six years of being part of the same whole that existed regardless of the outer world’s awe or discomfort, causes a great deal of uncertainty and upheaval for Ruth and Esther. Ruth further asserts her singular identity by saying, “there is a memory that I know is mine alone” (50) when she thinks back to the car ride. Esther felt “a great opening up” (51) when she realized that Hugh was speaking only to her, and she further separates herself from her sister by lying and attempting to meet up with Hugh at a later time. Like the rock she sits on while waiting for Hugh, the one “that splits the path in two” (ibid.), the lie she told Ruth finalizes the split between them.

The newly fragmented narration between Ruth and Esther emphasizes their newly fragmented identities, and even when a new section begins by using the pronoun we, it is only a false and temporary sense of cohesion; it is soon revealed that Esther is actually the narrator, lamenting that “we were no longer whole; we couldn’t imagine how we would ever be whole again” (53). The twins can not deal with the distance between them, perhaps, in light of the distance that exists already between them and the world. The reader, too, seems to be partially written out of the story once Esther and Ruth come into their individual identities; the I shatters the reader from the trance where she was part of we, discluding her from the story, causing her to experience an anxiety of separation similar to that which Ruth and Esther endure – and when we is reintroduced, it is no comfort, for it is all too clear now that the we belongs only to the twins, as the reader will never have a place in the text as I.

Further complicating this fragmentation, the outside world still sees the twins as indistinguishable despite the split that has occurred. The doctor that attempts to use sedatives to treat the discomfort caused by their newly discovered separate identities comments that “one – I don’t know which – was pacing back and forth” (55) and refers to the twins as they. Perhaps foreshadowing the eventual demise of the twins, their nanny says earlier that she doubted they could “have a normal life; it was impossible to imagine them separated like that” (35). The twins could not be separate after having always been whole, like the reader can find no comfort in being separated from a story she believed herself a phantom part of.

This increasing fragmentation of the self from the sibling and the siblings from the world puts the twins “in pieces . . . scattered to the wide winds” (ibid.), and in spite of their attempt to fight the fragmentation, to “hold [them] selves together” (55), they can not. The very format of their story has forbade their survival as a unit; the fragmentation evident in the changing narrators and the separate narratives must permeate the twins as well, eventually hold them apart from each other as they were held apart from the world.

Unlike the structural fragmentation in The Deep, however, the fragmentation in AVA does not exist in order to break or tear apart, to define one person at the displeasure or distress of another; instead, the novel strives “to arrive at a language that heals as much as it separates” (Maso 163), the Cixousian ideal that Ava recalls as she lies in bed on the final day of her life. The fragmented form this novel embodies seeks to express the innumerable splashes of moments in the vast ocean of Ava’s memory, the subsequent reassociation and reformulation of pieces of the world once they are inside the context of Ava’s mind, and finally to draw the reader into the text as another small fragment of the world, increasingly included in Ava’s life through the process of reading the novel. These “tenuous, fragmented, attenuated thoughts” (64), these pieces of Ava’s life and the world, can exist simultaneously alone and together
“So that the form takes as many risks as the content –
It’s taken so long to get here” (255).

Ava’s fragmentation, then, does not articulate a sharp-edged or finite separation of memory from memory so much as the permeability of memories and moments, the boundaries that can be maintained or discarded among people, places, and things. Maso begins to establish this soft, undulating fragmentation of Ava’s remembered life by arranging the body of the novel to use as much blank space as it does words, and dividing the novel into three sections: MORNING, AFTERNOON, and NIGHT.

What becomes clear from the contents of each section, however, is that despite the distinction of each section’s specific name, all three seem equally capable of standing alone, overlapping, and adding up to some greater whole – generally doing all three at once. Similarly, the blank spaces in-between Ava’s flashes of memory serve to value no one flash more than any other, yet to allow each moment to encompass its own space, not losing its individuality at the expense of the collective, nor vice versa.

The reader, too, is allowed some freedom due to the blank spaces, the freedom to allow her mind to wander, to connect fragments of Ava’s life with fragments of her own, to clear her mind of one flash to prepare it for the next, or to carry one moment seamlessly into the other. Gone are the traditional paragraphs, the topic sentences, and the summaries; gone are the precise and chronologically ordered beginning, middle, and end. When Ava thinks of Cixous, who said that “each page [she wrote] could be the first page of the book. Each page is completely entitled to be the first page” (58), the reader feels that this statement fits the text of AVA as well. In NIGHT, Ava asks, playfully almost,
“How is that then for a beginning?
No. I can’t begin again” (247),
as though at this time, on this page, she might have found a more suitable – or perhaps just equally suitable – beginning for her story. In MORNING, Ava asks, “how is this for a beginning?” (50) and again, “how does this strike you as a beginning?” (53), fragmenting the text into an endless number of beginnings and lack of beginnings.

We read for the first time, in MORNING, that “she finds herself on her thirty-third birthday on a foreign coast” (75). Here, Ava refers to herself in the third person, demonstrating some kind of disconnect with her identity as the I of her universe, seeing this moment of her past as though from the outside looking in. This same moment is articulated again in AFTERNOON, altered slightly, and with enough additional information to place the quote in the framework of a larger context:
“Because I don’t remember orgasms like that before. My thirty-third year. A textbook case.
She finds herself on a foreign coast.
It is and is not my body” (128).
Now the reader is able to connect these fragments if so desired. The foreign coast seems at once a literal and figurative coast, not only the actual foreign coast she lives on with Carlos, but also a new and unexplored coast of her sexuality that she discovers in this thirty-third year. The disconnect Ava feels from herself, on the cusp of these two foreign coasts, is made all the more palpable by her simultaneous acceptance and denial of her body. Ava’s duality – her ability to at once embrace herself as I and then distance herself as she, switching between the familiar and foreign in a moment’s notice – further explores the notion of healing and separating that the reader encounters earlier in the text.

The blank spaces, ever present throughout the pages of AVA, can not be overlooked as an integral component of the structural fragmentation permeating the text. This space, a meditation in-between the complete saturation of memory, the sudden weight of absence in the middle of everything, is the pause that one takes to surface for breath right before submerging one’s self again – the exact moment when two things overlap and pull apart slightly, only to join together again. Maso causes the reader to
” . . . [feel] the form – finally.
A more spacious form. After all this time.
Breathe” (212).
The space, then, manages to be not just a break, not merely a moment of quiet or absence, but the point at which things blur together, separate, and unite at once.

Ava’s remembrances, too, have this same ambiguous, threefold quality: “as short as one of these sentences. As brief as that . . . As seemingly random as it all appears – there are accumulated meanings” (129). Each flash of memory can be regarded as whole in its own space and still part of the entirety of Ava’s thirty-nine years, a snap shot of a moment in a series of moments, “bits of remembered things: the lights in your eyes” (121). Ava, too, seems aware of the complexity of her symphony of memory, wondering “would you like to have a perfect memory?” (16) and then thinking that, regardless, “there is still Verdi and sunlight and the memory of the man on the Riviera – and when memory goes it is replaced maybe with beautiful, floating, free, out of context fish” (ibid.).

But not only is Ava’s memory revealed in fragments, it also reveals that she herself is somewhat of a fragment as a result, feeling longing in the physical absence of loved ones while they remain ever-present in memory. Remembering a loved one long since gone, Ava realizes, “I think of his life. That somewhere else it was completing itself. Somewhere outside my reach. Without me” (9), the void that exists between them made more tangible and yet somehow lessened by her memory of him, her wonder of what he is without her.

Even the act of obtaining memories, the act of living creates a fragmentation of the world, because to live and remember Ava must absorb what she can, drinking the world in through her fingertips, and release what she can not, giving up these fragments, giving up some part of herself in return. Ava’s desire “to devour all that is the world” (113) is an insatiable one, and the very act of devouring suggests the act of digestion, a breaking down, and that of consumption, a form of taking in.

Complexly, AVA manages to create a sense of fragmentation in the reader as well, the same words appearing repeatedly but meaning the same and changed things simultaneously. The first time one reads
“A throbbing.
Come quickly” (3)
in MORNING, it is unclear what this throbbing refers to or why it necessitates coming quickly, but the reader can comprehend the sensation of throbbing, the act of coming quickly. These words are presented in a different order in NIGHT, with other words interspersed:
“Come quickly –
You can’t believe,
A throbbing. A certain pulsing” (265).
The act of reading the words another time in a slightly different manner yet recalling the experience of reading them the first time causes a fragmentation of the reader’s interpretation, calling into question whether or not these words could ever mean the same thing twice.

Another fragmentation to examine is the process by which Maso deftly strips language bare into the alphabet, asking her reader to consider what words are made out of as she intersperses letters throughout MORNING, AFTERNOON, and NIGHT. On page forty-four, “the child draws the letter A,” on page one hundred and sixty-two “a tiny hand carefully draws the letter A,” and on page two hundred and fifty-six “a girl draws a V from the other side of the alphabet,” but we do not learn until NIGHT that
“The girl draws an A. She spells her name:
AVA” (268).

Here, the reader must consider over and over again if the A means anything at all, or if the A is simply the beginning as “the child learns her alphabet” (46), until it is revealed in NIGHT that A, all along, could have been the beginning and the end of Ava’s name – but even then, A is something else entirely on its own. Each time, then, that the reader encounters the child writing the letter A, it could be the beginning or the end of Ava’s name, or the beginning or the end of her story. Indeed, this further articulates the fragmentation of traditional story structure and language structure in AVA. The letters that make up Ava’s name, after all, exist on two separate sides of the alphabet but can be strung together to make up a word, meaning one thing together and another thing separately, both at once. It is possible that Ava, in the “hovering and beautiful alphabet” (258) of her name, manages “to create a language that heals as much as it separates” (ibid.).

By examining the various ways in which form and content are fragmented in Mary Swan’s The Deep and Carole Maso’s AVA, it is clear that both authors are interested in pursuing a form that echoes its content. While fragmentation in The Deep seems primarily interested in emphasizing finite boundaries and the after effects of crossing them, the fragmentation in AVA seems more fluid, the reader more able to cross the boundaries and come back again.

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