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Neighborly notions

Parciak plays with views of mentally ill

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At the onset of her first novel, Requiem for Locusts, Wendy Parciak makes a command: “Consider a street, any street, in a neighborhood…where the ties that bind people together have loosened and often broken apart.” Her tone is depressed and disenchanted, though nonetheless captivating. After all, which one of us is not at least vaguely disillusioned with the modern age, the atomized society in which we often live among, but not really with, each other? Parciak’s dystopic vision of Locust Street, populated by neighbors who don’t know each other’s names and whose only connection is their street and a community-by-default, is a familiar one. And it’s alluring for exactly that reason.

Parciak takes this familiarity and runs with it, down the concrete lane of Locust Street and into the interiors of the homes and heads of its residents. We recognize these characters as emblems of a pathetic society: an old lady cursing today’s youth; a timid neurologist; a bored but imaginative 13 year old; an attorney and an aerobics instructor who seem to hate each other, and their toddler whose first word is “car,” but in her nanny’s native tongue, “coché.” They are not especially endearing and don’t, at first, warrant much sympathy. But Parciak’s omniscient voice snakes in and out of the dialogue, a stream of consciousness that forges our relationship to her characters. We know, for instance, the inter-workings of their minds, their neuroses and their inner-monologues before we know how society perceives them. She ties us to them, however despicable they may seem.

Parciak gradually deepens our empathy with these characters by disclosing their turbulent emotional and psychological states, and by revealing their traumatic pasts. The more intricacies these characters reveal, the more familiar they become.
But Parciak introduces a new challenge to our notion of familiarity and empathetic ability with the Zaferatos family, a couple of circus performers who move to Locust Street with their mentally ill daughter, Marzita. The daughter’s unknown illness causes her violent hallucinations, delusions, a wanderlust that makes her capable of conquering 12-foot fences and tall hedges, and the ability to hear or at least intuit her neighbors’ thoughts. Marzita’s arrival functions as a sort of return of the repressed: Her very presence signifies something her neighborhood (and society at large) has chronically ignored.

Requiem for Locusts is an intensely personal project for Parciak, a Missoulian whose sister has inspired her to do much thinking and feeling about mental illness and society. In an entry on her blog, Parciak writes: “We all have experience with the mentally ill. Understanding, I believe, is the first step towards tolerance, towards the building of families and communities that can include their mentally disabled members to the fullest extent. If we try to understand people who suffer from mental illness, we can help to usher in a new era of compassion.” This is the understanding that Parciak tries to achieve in Requiem for Locusts. And by the end of the novel, this “era of compassion” becomes apparent.

The book is filled with deeply sad and beautifully written passages in which Parciak captures—and saliently critiques—society’s view of mental illness. The streams of consciousness of Marzita’s family members, rants steeped in love, are capable of producing tears: “And she came home with doubt, daddy what’s wrong with me, why is my leg so funny, why is my mind so slow, yes he tried to explain and he tried not to mind, and she came home with sadness, daddy why do they tease me why don’t I have friends, no he couldn’t explain and he couldn’t help notice and he did mind he minded very much for SHE WAS HIS BEAUTIFUL DAUGHTER.”

Marzita’s experience does not fit within society’s rigid framework, and so she offers an alternative one. Her perception of time is convoluted: “When I was old,” she recounts, or envisions for her future. She has an illogical but profound understanding of nature. Her aptitude for languages is visible in the French phrases she scrawls on walls in crayon, and audible in the words she recites to herself in a moment of existential insight: “The girl chuckled. ‘Sum,’ she said. ‘I am.’ ‘Eram. Eró. I was. I will be.’” In the same way that Marzita affects those around her—she shows up in her neighbors’ trees, on their porches, in their sandboxes—Parciak’s account of the girl’s inimitable sensibility affects our understanding of experience: Marzita’s way of being in the world is as valid as any.

We are vaguely familiar with the scene that Parciak sets at the novel’s outset, but through Marzita the familiar becomes uncanny. She gives the people of Locust Street a history, and as the novel’s title implies, memorializes the human experience. Parciak reminds us that we can relate to each other however “crazy” we may appear. Written simply and in colorful prose, capable of transporting us right to wherever Locust Street is in our minds, Requiem for Locusts reminds us what it means to be a person living among people. 

Wendy Parciak reads from Requiem for Locusts at Fact & Fiction Friday, Nov. 21, at 7 PM.

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