Many critics acquainted with Marcom’s work have dismissed her fiction as being impossibly convoluted, repetitious, or confusing, that her characters misrepresent or exaggerate, and many disagree with me as I insist that Marcom is one of the most compelling contemporary authors writing in English and that her prose is radically innovative, acutely artistic, and intensely humane. Ultimately, all of her work is an inquiry into love, its edges and limits, which obtains a new palpability and a new level of understanding in the sheer beauty and quiet poignancy of her prose.
Marcom’s fourth novel, a small book originally titled “The Edge of Love,” referring to a Clarice Lispector story called “That’s Where I’m Going,” and published as The Mirror in the Well, is an exquisite and at the same time terrifying account of an episode in the life of a woman who realizes that she is trapped in the painfully quotidian traffic of urban life and its culture. This unnamed modern, American, middle-class woman—“the girl,” who in a sense is an “everywoman,” and who appears to be, at the same time, as Marcom characterized her in a recent interview (see Context 22), an amalgam of feminine archetypes from the old stories of love—Helen of Troy, Scheherazade, Isolde, among others, awakens from a prescribed, comatose life to the realization that she is not fully alive, that she has not fully lived. In her search for a sensation of life, she plunges into the depths of herself, crossing and transgressing the borders of the permissible, the codes and values that are tolerated by society, partaking of what Anne Carson called “eros, the bittersweet,” a description which Carson, in turn, borrowed from Sappho: “Eros once again limb-loosener whirls me / sweetbitter, impossible to fight off, creature stealing up.” Her melancholy lover—the dark-eyed foreigner, who carves and shapes wood—journeys with her into the underworld of desire, where “the girl” must discover in her solitude shame, bitterness, the pleasure of, and the nostalgia for, wholeness. She is at once the goddess-mother and the monster-child, a source that can castrate or give life. Indeed, no other book has inquired into female sexuality and desire with such force and honesty, so curiously and physically looked into the sexual act from a woman’s perspective and the female sex itself. As Marcom noted in her interview, “I suppose in a society where female sexuality is feared and repressed and shamed: where the cunt itself is shameful and to be hidden, cleaned up, covered, then to put the naked form of a woman at center with her point of view, her sex, and pleasure as the point of inquiry, well, then, yes that could be radical, it could offend, it might be considered ugly, immodest, in bad taste and immoral, and of course it is the most natural thing on earth.”
Marcom’s language is not censored, but neither is it embellished—it simply describes the desperate drive that pulls and pushes at “the girl” who has come back from the dead; the world of television, habitual affairs, meaningless material possessions, and the bitter convenience of marriage. Everything in The Mirror is distilled into one thing—the phrase and its uncapturability, which is also the very moment of orgasm. The words never pretend to replace the experience itself, they only try fragmentarily, fleetingly to capture the moment, yet fail; then they are arranged anew, in a different construction, only to leave the reader with a sensation of an eternal continuity, our relentless desire to dismantle the boundary between language and sensation, and the realization that human experience will always remain in the interstices of linguistic codes.