Kevin Oderman, White Vespa, Etruscan Press, 2012
Reviewed by Nicole Sheets
For the plot of Kevin Oderman's White Vespa, you need a Greek island like Symi, among the Dodecanese. You need a climate in which people's houses spill out-of-doors onto terraces. In this novel, there's too much grief and passion to be bound by four walls.
The island Symi needs a town called Symi. It should be small, where people know each other, a container for open secrets.
Symi town should wrap around a harbor, so that as main character Myles Twomey attests, "[n]o matter where you are when you're in town, you're at the edge of things" (38).
It helps if the town is touristy, so there's an influx of outsiders to replenish the cast.
And, of course, it must be beautiful. An essayist of Oderman's caliber can capture the whitewashed pallor of buildings, the look of the sea, or a "boat [that] was small but bright, a lipstick red with turquoise detailing" (38).
White Vespa combines the pleasures of a novel with those of a travelogue. Far from ornamental, the topography of Symi and the Dodecanese shapes the story and its visitors' entwined lives.
Myles' journal entries punctuate the novel's short, dated chapters. These add up to something like a photographer's contact print, frames of the novel building to a composite effect.
But it's not only the landscape that lures us. One of the delights of reading White Vespa is rooting for lonely hearts, especially Myles, a photographer, and Anne, a damaged, distant, unconventional beauty. Plus there's the satisfaction of hating on Paul, a "handsome, way too handsome" predator (24).
Wrapped up in stories of love and loss, the book is also an ars poetica of photography.
We learn that part of what draws Myles to photography is that he doesn't need a story, just an image. In fact, part of his process is to "kill the story" because, he suggests, "[y]ou can only keep a story from getting sad by cutting it off before the end" (25). What we learn of Myles' earlier life confirms that he is no stranger to sadness.
Oderman routes much of this thinking on photography through dialogue between Myles and Jim, an English professor from the States with whom Myles strikes up a friendship.
Photography offers an expression of the book's theme of grief with artful indirection. On a trip to the neighboring island of Tilos, Jim is struck by a town's emptiness. Myles replies that "people are always leaving" (77). For Myles, that abandonment is at the heart of the image: "The world is the photograph is always a lost world. The place might be the same but the people are always gone or changed" (77).
Photography is central to Myles' relationship with Anne. Myles makes it clear that he doesn't usually photograph people, but when Anne asks him to take her portrait, he agrees. The photographs cast in their courtship in stark relief, a play of negative spaces, contours, shadows. Myles gets to know Anne through these photographs. As he studies the prints he's made, he realizes that "[e]verything about her image said, Reach me, I am here. But it also said, You can't reach me, I can't be reached. What the images unveiled was the veil itself" (57).
In the wrong hands, Oderman's musing on photography could feel heavy-handed, inert and pedantic. Perhaps his dialogue pushes the limits of how even the most self-aware and artistically inclined people actually speak. (This seems like hardly a criticism, really).
In much of Oderman's work, especially his creative nonfiction, there's an insistence on travel, the need for new land, a new light under which to heal, or at least to find new problems instead of the old ones. "Only what it is," Myles reflects, "the new places shines, as if eternal" (30).
For Myles, this newness, this lack of context, is the power of a photograph to produce a kind of "rapture" that lifts us out of time. He laments that "[t]ourists arrange their photos in albums, in stories...to keep creeping eternity from dissolving their stories altogether, in a kind of rapture. They guard carefully against the very thing that called to them" (30).
Myles, by contrast "I wanted the rapture...wanted it bad" (30).
To someone like me with a very King James Version childhood, rapture is something to be feared, that bedrock anxiety of being left behind in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye.
In White Vespa, Oderman reminds us that rapture happens all the time: we fall in love, lose that love, or see things before our very eyes that we don't, can't believe.