Immigration and Incarceration Define Our Time:
A Review of Zachary Lazar’s Vengeance with Valerie Martin’s Trespass
Pairing Martin’s Trespass (New York: Nan A. Talese, 2003), which I regret I am only just now reading, with Lazar’s Vengeance (New York: Catapult, 2018) gives an eerie and compelling vision of the twenty-first century Zeitgeist. Each traces an insider versus outsider story in its examination of the complicated current landscapes of race, ethnicity, nationality, class, and gender.
In Vengeance, a creative writing professor befriends Kendrick, an Angola inmate, and attempts to tell his story. This narrator concludes that the person whom he champions is innocent and condemns both the justice system and this penitentiary: “You can spend your life here for being present during a crime, even if you didn’t commit it yourself. You can spend your life here for doing something stupid when you were sixteen . . .you can spend it here for doing nothing at all, an innocent person, or an exemplary one, like Kendrick, or like the protagonist of The Life of Jesus Christ” (238).
The narrator simultaneously recounts his own story. He locates himself literally and figuratively at the same “terminus” (238) and concludes, “Maybe I thought my identification with people like Kendrick was a move away from the problem of violence . . . toward a more mature concern for the problem of injustice” (81).
If Lazar’s narrator wished to move from the abstract to the tangible grasp of the issue of incarceration, his own experiment proves him wrong. The complexity of the case, with its confessions, accusations, and retractions, with its interminable investigations and interviews, forms an imbricated knot of narrative contradictions and a spiraling explosion of uncertainty and confusion.
In/justice is the central issue in both texts. It is of vital importance because Louisiana’s moniker is “the world’s incarceration capital” (Rachel Kushner). Thus, within the quintessential prison-state, Lazar and Martin address the problem of societal complicity and the implausibility of innocence, perhaps the impossibility of it.
Trespass forms the nexus of this comparison. Near the end of Vengeance, a line from the Lord’s Prayer is set off as an italicized, one-sentence paragraph, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” (238). The narrator concludes, “ I’ve thought of that phrase many times and I’m still not sure whom it refers to or what it can possibly mean in this time and place” (238-39). Trespass, the title of Martin’s text, is a literal trope of personal property and of state and national boundaries. Trespass as a metaphorical, spiritual concept lies at the heart of Vengeance.
In Vengeance, identity is so tenuous and ambiguous that the concept of trespass against one and one’s being and belongings mays seem irrelevant. Time has in fact stalled for the inmate, leading the narrator to conclude “a part of him was still twenty-two” (31). Kendrick’s mother, girlfriends, daughter, brother, and cousin all paint competing portraits. . . Kendrick himself at different time admits guilt and claims innocence.
The conflation of identities and issues, of crime and punishment, of guilt and implication, climaxes in the narrator’s letter to the parole board. It recounts his rather than Kendrick’s story (212 – 216). A concomitant disassociation and diffusion of identity occurs when the narrator describes himself in both the first and third person.
The problem of identity also vexes Martin’s text. If Vengeance explores the uncertainty of identity to the point of diffusion then Trespass could be said to explore the opposite: identity drawn so closely as to become caricature—and that is not a critique of Martin’s writing but rather a testament to her skill at representing that mentality. It is the very tautness and certainties of the characters’ self-definitions--gendered, ethnic, and nationalistic--and the boundaries and tensions that those segregations and differentiations generate that create the novel’s conflicts.
The story in short is boy meets girl. Boy’s liberal parents are not sure that they approve. (It must be noted that they have also disliked his previous choices.) They are also not sure that they understand the history of the new girlfriend, a Croatian refugee from Louisiana. The Americans, parents and child, are not only given a history lesson, they are also pulled into that narrative as within the span of six months, the boy--besotted—finds his girlfriend Salome pregnant, themselves married, and his wife returned to Europe to look for her mother, who was apparently not killed in the Croatian conflict after all.
So Trespass, like Vengeance, is about connections—trying to unravel one’s identity from another’s.
It is hard to sympathize with Chloe as she grapples with her commitment to her own liberal politics. Completely opposed to current U. S. policy abroad, especially the Bush administration’s policies in the Middle East, she is nonetheless afraid her daughter-in-law may be Muslim, and she is terrified that a rabbit poacher on her land may be Lebanese. However, there are moments when the conditioning that acculturated Chloe shines off her armor, and she is a sympathetic figure. One such moment occurs at her first meeting with Salome, when she discerns Salome’s discomfort and attempts to empathize, “But it could be so much worse, she wants to tell Salome . . . .” (7).
It is hard to sympathize with Chloe, but her husband Brendan’s summary of the situation sheds light on her dilemma. He sees her as “once his ironic helpmeet, now nervous and contrary” (138). Her husband has never had Chloe’s back, not really. Although he seems to assess the situation impassively, he takes sides with those he finds attractive and with those he feels are winners: “She feels her territory has been invaded and she is under attack. She wants to throw the intruders out, go back to the way things were . . . .They have a poacher and they have a pregnant soon-to-be-daughter-in-law; the outsiders are insiders now, staking their claims” (139).
In closing, I want to note that each text has compelling post-Katrina storylines as sub-plots. Each also beautifully encodes a second text within it, mirroring and the main plots and emphasizing the recursive nature of narrative in and as history. Trespass encrypts Wuthering Heights and the “problem” of the dark foundling (14). Vengeance embeds The Passion Play as the novel traces the inmates’ planning and production of the famous Easter pageant.
The question each text asks is about justice. One answer they ask readers to formulate is mercy.
Reviewed by M. L. Byrd
M. L. Byrd is an associate professor English at Virginia State and editor of NOLA DIASPORA. One of her favorite responsibilities is book reviewing!