Saturday, March 3, 2018

Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker

Granny looked sad.  "I've never been able to see anything wrong with your being--"

"Don't say it," I said, "don't say that word."

"Nobody else who is one feels this way about it," gran said in the aggrieved voice she always uses for this particular conversation, the conversation about our condition, so to call it.  I'm sorry to grieve her or deny her the pleasure, but I have to make things clear, because no one of my grandmother's temperament and sensibilities can understand what it's like to be bound to a way of life like ours--a situation we inwardly glory in, but one we have to protect at every turn from the menacing mass of cliches that are thrust on us from the outside.  To be like us isn't easy, it requires a constant attention to detail.  I've thought it out; we've thought it out together.  I've tried to explain to my doctor that it's a question of working ceaselessly at being as different as possible because there must be a gap before it can be bridge.  And the bridge is the real project.

The first time we see Cassandra Edwards in Dorothy Baker's Cassandra at the Wedding, she's alone in her apartment in Berkeley, looking out over the Golden Gate Bridge.  "The sun was on it," she tells us, "and it took on something of the appeal of a bright exit sign in an auditorium that is crowded and airless and where you are listening to a lecture, as I so often do, that is in no way brilliant."  It's her alone-ness that brings on these thoughts of casual suicide; we come to find out that several months ago her identical twin sister Judith absconded to New York, leaving her with two halves of a shared piano, and coming back with a fiance.

Cassandra drives out to her family's ranch outside of Bakersfield for the wedding, which she is determined, though perhaps in a way that remains buried in her subconscious for much of the novel's first half, not to let it happen.  But the book isn't a farce; Cassandra doesn't go around plotting like she's in a sitcom.  Rather, she's convinced that her connection with her sister--the kind of fabled tie that identical twins have, and which is so perfectly rendered in this novel--will allow her to convince Judith that it's all a mistake, and the two of them are really meant to go on living together as a unit, as they've always done.

The complexity of Cassandra and Judith's relationship provides Cassandra at the Wedding with most of its tremendous energy and believeability.  Cassandra bristles at the "menacing cliches" that come along with being an identical twin, and both sisters have long resisted their bougie grandmother's encouragement that they dress alike.  It turns out that Cassandra has purchased the exact same dress for the ceremony that her sister has, a symbolic development that sends her into a psychic tailspin.  Yes, the sisters have a preternatural bond, but the bond is predicated on their difference; if they are truly identical, then one is superfluous.  And yet the other extreme--her sister's unexpected flight from her to New York and to marriage--seems equally threatening to the preservation of Cassandra's ego.  It helps that Baker's dialogue is so full of life and well-rendered.  The sisters don't speak a private language, as the common trope about identical twins goes, but they do have a shared voice.

Ultimately, what the opening foreshadows comes true: Cassandra tries to take her own life with a bottle of pills.  (I don't think that's really a spoiler--it happens smack-dab in the middle of the book.)  Baker captures Cassandra's inner voice so well; I don't think I've read an account of suicide that seems as believable as this one.  There's no high melodrama; instead, Baker depicts the suicide as an inevitability, a decision that was made before Cassandra realizes herself that she has made it.  For a moment the first-person voice jumps over to Judith--a wry suggestion, perhaps, that when one identical twin is incapacitated, the other will have to do--but I wanted to highlight this bravura passage from Cassandra's perspective.  She's recovering from the attempt, and imagining, in a still-drugged state, a wedding of her own: 

It was quick, I think--a treat deal of it but soon finished, and then, though it's not simple, or even sensible, to try to reconstruct nothingness, I believe I almost achieved it for a while--a great stretch of purest black velvet, smooth, soundless, the very piece of black velvet I'd been looking for for so long.  I can remember feeling it drop, weightless, over me, swathing and swaddling me and then becoming one with me so that there was no way to tell which was velvet and which was Cassandra.  But I never made it all the way to nowhere; there was a dogged spark of consciousness, very small, very feeble, but dogged, and it could just as well be called conscience, damn it, as consciousness, because I knew in some beating depth that I was engaged in illicit communion with the one great howling beauty of them all, and that there would have to be what there always has to be in this kind of affair--repercussions.  There would be jealousy, accusations, recriminations, the full deck of threats and noises.  I couldn't stay all night, I'd have to leave by an inconspicuous exit and try not to kick anything over on the way out, and remember to pick up my things--my bag, my lipstick, all marks of identification, including the ostentatious monogrammed items my friends are forever giving me.  Collect them and leave without lingering, because nobody will bless this union, not even granny, who will bless practically anything if you set it up right.  No chance for me and the one of my choice, my calm sweet quiet black-velvet love--no receiving line, no friends to wish us all the happiness and success in the world in our new life, which of course is the wrong world, but how would they know enough to believe I could prefer the opposite number?  How could they, when the best thing they can think of is life?  And wish you all success and happiness in it, unless they happened to be tipped off that you want to marry a bolt of black velvet and you like it that way.  Then they don't wish you anything; they shake their heads, they pity you, they say you jumped the gun.  Cassandra Edwards too her own life, because the headlong fool could not quiet down and wait for a natural cause.

That's one of those passages that really is too long to include in a review, but is so good that I just can't stop myself.  I don't know where to cut it off.  I love the black humor of Cassandra imagining that she's marrying a "bolt of black velvet," this representation of death itself.  I love the "dogged spark of consciousness."  Most of all I love the strength of Cassandra's voice, so similar to Judith's but wilder, somehow, bigger.  Cassandra's presence is so big, so real, yet so strange, it's easy to sympathize with her--of course there's no one else out there that can make a companion to it but that of her sister, and if not that, than obliteration.  It's that voice that gives Cassandra at the Wedding its power.

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