They are on the run and have come to hide out in an old barn, say in Goochland County. A “fallen, rebel, outcast” angel named Shannon who hasn’t always worked the best neighborhoods and George Stewart, an artist who at the moment is bleeding from scraped knees. She’s broken the bounds of angel bureaucracy by consorting with humans. He’s been obsessed with the shape, form and meaning of wings in the context of a hurt, stuck world ever since seeing Anselm Kiefer’s massive Landscape With Wing at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Shannon and George meet, long story short, when George, drunk and stumbling to his car around Park Avenue and Meadow Street, drops and loses his keys. The ring of metal on concrete gets Shannon’s attention. She needs to evade pursuers. She soon takes George on the wildest ride of his life. Angels tend to make humans forget them, but George saves her by combating another angel and then gives Shannon’s life new meaning by loving her. Yet they are not alone in the dusty barn: Besides wisecracking crows and a blind former show horse, perched in a tree is Peter Arrowsmith, the archangel’s special investigator. Arrowsmith hunts "the more elusive, suspicious and dangerous among the fallen, like Shannon, who might seek to threaten the Order of Things, though he is not authorized to bring them in but must call upon one of the bands.” But Peter is also infatuated with Shannon, though her present entanglement with George complicates matters in a most frustrating manner. The voyeur Arrowsmith watches Shannon and George and grouses: “Does everybody think they’re living in a bloody fairy tale?”
This scenario arises in the new fiction by writer Dennis Danvers, a Richmonder since 1987. While here, he’s written books about time distortion/travel, technology allowing humans to become living holograms residing in a self-made “paradise” that infinitely reproduces itself. He’s set several in Richmond or a variant of it, including The Watch, where Russian anarchist Prince Kropotkin ends up as a kind of ringleader for an Oregon Hill collective. Danvers in 2004 was recognized for his work by this publication’s Theresa Pollak Prize for Excellence in the Arts.
Danvers novel is Bad Angels, through Metaphysical Circus Press, in e-book and paperback form.
Wings of Desire
“How do you like your contemporary art?” Simon Schama rhetorically asked in Britain's The Guardian newspaper on Jan. 19, 2007. He was writing about an exhibition of Kiefer’s work at London’s White Cube. “A quick hit of juicy mischief, a larky take on mortality, binful of blue bottles, pocketful of glitter, everything you never wanted to know and more about the artist's entrails? Right, then, give Anselm Kiefer a very wide berth,” because as the collection of work would prove, Kiefer “doesn't do droll, he does the big embarrassing stuff, the stuff that matters: the epic slaughters of the world, the incineration of the planet, apocalypse then, apocalypse often; the fragile endurance of the sacred amid the cauterised ruins of the earth.”
And in the past few months, novelists who live and work in Richmond’s vicinity have produced two other novels that feature characters contending with the legacy of wings.
Perhaps their appearance is due to a roiling and violent world banging on our screens and moiling through our newsfeeds and spilling blood in the streets.
The walking dead may have run their course. There is perhaps a yearning among the collective imagination to get above it all.
Poet/novelist Allison Titus’ eerie The Arsonist’s Song Has Nothing To With Fire (Etruscan Press) came into the world last fall. A major character in the tale is a scientist whose gloss of methodic experimentation reveals to us bit by bit just how crazy he is. Titus’ language is incisive as it is persuasive and gorgeous as it is compelling.
The Doctor wants to attach working wings on a person that make the individual capable of flight. The town schlemiel, Ronny, who falls into the Doctor’s plans, has his own problems, not the least of which is a propensity toward arson. Amid these two is the moody Vivian Foster, who is house sitting for various people while figuring what to do with her life now that her adventuring husband has gone missing. She rehearses in her imagination the various ways she might die. Ronny and Vivian become friends and lovers, and the story turns gritty and real after the death of Vivian’s mother that puts the two on a road trip from North Carolina to Nebraska. And if the one way to really get to know somebody is on a long car trip, well, here’s an interpretation that’ll give you something to think about.
The book takes off into a flight of mythological fancy that packs a wallop.
Blessing And A Curse
In this story, a Lithuanian family’s female members possess a genetic quirk: They’re born with wings. Or vestigial remnants of them.
The novel possesses a magical quality, yet manages to persuade us of these unusual or supernatural occurrences in a brutal real world of Soviet pogroms and Nazi invasion, of family rifts and the unaccountable way people drift in and out of a person’s life, and the enduring qualities of love. And although these women are born with wings, they are unable to fly away to escape often terrible circumstances. Except in one instance, when the youthful Daina Vilkas finds herself in the clutches of the Soviet secret police. Her wings can’t physically lift her out, but they provide a revelation experience.
The one witness to this event, a hapless police photographer, is transformed by the vision and like Danvers’ George before Keifer’s wing at the VMFA, turns his artistic efforts toward art involving wings.
All three books involve a man seeking to transform the world through feathery armatures. Young-Stone’s women are born with with them as “defects;” Titus gets her Vivian close to them although they are attached to a man; and in Danvers, the wings are naturally grown on real angels. His Shannon calls her wings her “beauties” and when going around in the human world hides them folded into a backpack.
Danvers puts Richmond in the middle of a full-scale battle between thrones of angels – the outcasts and the human misfits who are assisted by them. At one point, a train loaded with angels speeding to Richmond must stop because a storm has toppled a massive tree across the tracks. Angels, who cannot in Danvers' telling do anything without consent, must determine if the tree wants to continue living. The galloping story comes to a pleasant rest as the angels confer (or dither) about what to do about the tree, which does in fact wish to exist, and the hosts raise up the tree to allow the train passage and renew their leafy friend’s life.
Danvers' book, at least by its end and for the days it hung in my consciousness, provides a reason for why Richmond is the way it is lately, how there can be the UCI Road World Championships with its international exposure and adoring aerial camera views, and yet, so much that we tussle with in the way it’s run.
Finally, I recall from my High Renaissance art survey class at Virginia Commonwealth University how angels were explained by the great Sidney Alexander.
I vividly recall him, glasses pushed above his damp brow into curly gray hair, in front of a slide of some Raphael painting, stating with the certainty as though he'd heard it from On High, “They are beautiful, but there are no girl angels. There are no boy angels. They are androgynous.” Which makes sense. If you’re an angel, you don’t want stuff like sexuality getting in the way of your angelic business.
Well. So much for history. These novels are about taking us out of this world and into ones of where their authors dare us to wonder.