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Symbolism run amok

A snake gets lost in the weeds



This semester my English composition class is as sharp as they come. They are astute, independent readers with healthy critical thinking skills. In essays, they see through bias and pretense, and in short stories they correctly identify literary symbols with the ease of a tweed-clothed professor.

In truth, though, I’m not sure how well they might do with Claire Davis’ second novel, Season of the Snake. In literature, the snake can be a tricky symbol, and one that actually characterizes good and evil alike. The snake embodies hidden psychoses, mystery, lust, the soul, duality, healing, life itself and, perhaps most famously, the portent of doom: that famous snake in the grass that seduced Eve and sowed the seeds for everything evil. As one eighteenth-century analyst put it: “Having been the most evil of all creatures and having ravished Eve’s virginity, the serpent sowed the seeds of bestiality and all unnatural lust within mankind.” In short, the snake—(ahem)—covers a lot of symbolic ground.

The problem my students would face with Season of the Snake is not just the slippery quality of the multi-faceted symbol. Their problem, in part, would be with how author Claire Davis wields the snake symbol with an all-encompassing swing—sometimes deftly, sometimes awkwardly. On the whole she leans far too heavily on symbolic meaning to enrich a novel that is otherwise lost in its own nuance.

The novel begins with a prologue. We are in Wisconsin during a dry storm of mayflies that “clot in the air three miles wide and a hundred feet deep.” Nance and her husband, Joe, drive sticky roads on their way to the hospital where Nance’s sister, Meredith, recovers from the latest beating delivered by an abusive boyfriend. But with this exception, everything seems to have fallen into place for Nance. She has just completed an undergraduate degree in biology and is considering graduate work; she and Joe aren’t just happily married, they’re downright giddy and live in a home they both adore. Married life, as Eden-like as it appears, soon comes to an end with Joe’s tragic death.

Chapter one begins 10 years later in Idaho, where Nance works as a scientist tracking rattlesnakes in the wilderness of Hell’s Canyon. She is remarried to Ned Able, a quiet and courteous school principal, with whom she has found contentment. In her professional life, however, Nance hunts rattlesnakes with the temerity of one who courts danger head-on in an attempt to protect herself. She reasons: If life’s serpent-like twists can jump out of seeming invisibility and bite and kill and forever alter whatever paradise you’ve found, then perhaps courting the snakes will accomplish the task of evading them. In its beginning, the book reveals two snakes in the grass: the reemergence of Meredith, the sister with whom Nance has barely spoken since Joe’s death (in her heart of hearts Nance partly blames Meredith), and the dangerous proclivities—sexual and otherwise—of Ned.

Davis’ prose has a sensual, lyrical touch. In truth, it’s almost spellbinding. In the prologue she epitomizes Nance’s first marriage in a love scene that reads almost spiritually: “[T]hey spend the next long while stripping down, lifting the leaf marl from armpits, the windowpane wings of flies from behind an ear, or stuck glassy to their backs. And each touch growing fiercer, until they are making love on the floor, atop a shamble of clothes, and finding the taste of each other is salt and earth.”

Despite its prose, the prologue fails to fully connect with the rest of the novel. Sure, it introduces the main character and the most troubling aspects of her psyche, but in the end it doesn’t etch its way into our consciousness; it doesn’t inform the rest of the novel in the grandiose way that a prologue—acting as the guiding hand of the novel—should inform. And the reason for this is that the most compelling aspect of the novel actually has nothing to do with Joe’s death.

While Nance takes off for weeks at a time on exploratory snake hunting trips, Ned indulges—with increasing boldness—in the secret fantasies that have taken over his private thoughts. As the eighteenth-century analyst might have predicted, Ned embodies that serpent with its unnatural and evil lusts. The moments in the novel when Ned dips more completely into his own madness illustrate how Davis’ penetrating prose can fully encompass the symbol: Ned is as dangerous as a snake that slowly constricts the life out of you.

Unfortunately, the centerpiece of the novel—Nance’s physical and mental survival—falls far short of Season’s potential. The writing often describes Nance as “floating in the currents” or “slip[ping] into half dreams as easily as conversation.” And her character does float and slip. In contrast to Ned’s storyline, which takes certain literary risks head-on, Nance’s storyline wavers to the point of boredom, with the novel struggling to reinvent new ways to explore her problems.

In the end we are led to believe that Nance will have an epiphany. It will attack with the ferocity of an unexpected snakebite and will lead her to confront Ned’s problems. The connection is forced. Almost every theme and plot twist in Season of the Snake can fit under the umbrella of a snake’s symbolism. And while at first this may seem infinitely clever, it is in fact shortsighted. Symbolism, like metaphor, should be used sparingly as a means of grasping some essential truth the novel hopes to illuminate. Ultimately, when an author uses symbolism to illuminate every last aspect of a novel, its only achievement is to undermine the things that truly stand out.

Claire Davis will be at Fact & Fiction Friday, April 29, at 7 PM for a reading and signing of Season of the Snake.

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