By Biz Bledsoe
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Thursday February 13, 2003
"Toni Morrison knockoff." Those were the words that crossed my mind upon reading the first paragraph of Olympia Vernon's novel "Eden." Like Morrison, Vernon's writing is packed with symbolism, metaphors and biblical allusions; unlike Morrison, Vernon's metaphors are too obvious while her language is intentionally (and maddeningly) vague. Most of her characters, including the main one, don't pack the emotional wallop they should, considering their miserable circumstances.
Maddy is the central character of "Eden." She's a 14-year-old black girl growing up in poor, rural Pyke County Mississippi. Her coming-of-age story is told in the context of her alcoholic and womanizing father Chevrolet, together with his aptly-named hustler Jesus, her long-suffering, overweight mother Faye, and her less-than-faithful Aunt Pip, who is dying of breast cancer. Ironically, it is after Maddy's own little expulsion from the Garden of Eden, in which she is kicked out of church for drawing a naked woman on the pages of Genesis, and while caring for her Aunt Pip, that Maddy learns to understand "true" spirituality. Namely, she learns that the well of spirituality, so to speak, is the milk of a woman's breast. Vernon beats this female-Christ metaphor over the reader's head throughout the book, and it is illustrated even further when Maddy touches her Aunt Pip's remaining breast and feels that "it was God."
As if she hadn't quite succeeded in weirding her readers out, Vernon feels the need to revisit the strange happenings of the town ÷ which include the chopping off of an arm, a pig devouring the arm and multiple graphic descriptions of genitalia ÷ as much as possible as she travels back and forth through time. In addition, her language and metaphors are either offensively obvious (we're not that stupid), or laughably vague, as when the heel of Faye's footprint is described as "curved into the marrow of an athlete's laughter." Whatever that means.
"Eden" is Vernon's first published novel, released this month and drawing some acclaim. Critics are making the obvious Morrison comparison ÷ although favorably ÷ and comparisons to other great masters of magical realism such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Maya Angelou. Vernon falls short when examined among these authors simply for the fact that she's just trying too hard.