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Nailing Down the Truth

From: The Missouri Review
Volume 36, Number 1, 2013
pp. 181-191 | 10.1353/mis.2013.0003

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Four novels by established writers provide windows on distinct and fascinating American cultural flash points of the past fifty years. The writers all happen to be women, but these are not domestic novels, with one possible exception— and that exception features a narrator so antidomestic that it offended many readers, including the writer’s agent. These are explorations of American life, forays into the jagged terrain of understanding how culture affects our lives. Is gender a part of these authors’ expeditions? Yes. Not overtly, but none of these authors is unaware of how gender plays out in culture and power relations. More than their delineations of differences between women’s and men’s lives, however, what the novels share are an authority on their cultural milieux and a concern with nailing down the truth. Their subjects, on the other hand, could not be more different. One is a sort of spiritual resurrection and a retrospective of the more half-baked aspects of the ’60s and ’70s; one is a case history of a fictional priest implicated in the the clergy sex-abuse scandals in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002; the third is a dissection of high-profile fraud in medical research; and the fourth is an epistolary punishment fantasy and broad critique of the United States.

Eleanor Lerman’s curious novel Janet Planet is the story of smart, independent and counterculturally inclined Janet Harris. The story takes the reader back to the tailwind of the psychedelic ’60s (the significant events actually begin in the spring of 1970) in intermittent italicized flashbacks that narrate Janet’s flight, at eighteen, from her unhappy suburban New York family to California; her agreeable work there for the small and friendly Guttenberg Harpsichord Company; and her relationship with a Carlos Castañeda–type character, Jorge (Georgie) Castelan, who walks into the harpsichord company warehouse one day in search of a tuning fork. This is where Janet first meets him, and from the beginning he is intent on putting her under his spell.

Janet Planet
Eleanor Lerman. Mayapple Press,
2011, 208 pp., $17.95.

Castelan is heavily modeled on Carlos Castañeda, down to doubts about the veracity of his books and his domestic arrangements: he lives in a big house with three women followers who have changed their names and share his eccentric beliefs. Author of a famous manifesto, The Peyote Palace, he claims to be the “last nagual” (shapeshifter). Actually, he’s a former UCLA graduate student who has carved out a reputation as a spiritual guru after encountering a Mexican shaman, or thinking he has, in a peyote-induced vision. After meeting Janet, Georgie forces his way into Janet’s life, renaming her “Janet Planet” and inviting her to move in with him and his followers. Janet is “rebellious by nature but careful by instinct,” qualities that first draw her into a connection with Jorge Castelan but that later cause her to run away from the Castelan ménage, who have begun to treat her patronizingly as their adopted daughter.

In the intervening decades, Janet has not forgotten Jorge Castelan, but she has avoided the past and has had no contact with either Castelan or his women. The present setting of the novel is twenty-first-century New York state. On a whim, Janet takes a day trip to Woodstock, where she finds a harpsichord kit in the home of a friend. She recognizes the kit as one made by the Guttenberg Company she once worked for. Intrigued (she’s still adventurous and unconventional), she decides to assemble the kit. When she realizes she doesn’t have enough space at home to lay out all the parts, she rents a house in Woodstock and begins assembling harpsichords for a living. If this seems like a convenient hop to an iconic town synonymous with the hippie era, Lerman finesses the leap, partly because it seems so consistent with Janet’s character; while Janet is strangely cautious about the physical world—she hates to drive, for instance—she is ever open to life’s mystical invitations.

Lerman is primarily a poet, whose first two books appeared in the early 1970s (Armed Love, 1973, was nominated...

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