MANY MEANINGS IN A META-ALLEGORY
Thea Prieto, From the Caves, Red Hen Press, 2021
Reviewed by Jesi Buell
Being an elder millennial (see: I refuse to use the term 'geriatric'), I've come to accept that I no longer know any of the cool lingo that the kids these days use. That said, the first thing that comes to mind when reading Thea Prieto's From the Caves is that it gives off "major A24 vibes." This novella screams out to be made into a movie. It is filled with rich language and vibrant imagery in a way that lends itself to cinema: I could see grainy memories of the narrator swimming like a sequence from Moonlight; the terse sound design and lighting from The Lighthouse or It Comes at Night as the characters huddle inside the cave; and there's even a scene reminiscent of the violent vibrance of Midsommar. Prieto paints scenes with visceral, creative phrasing that is at once innovative and yet still somehow familiar. There is an instinctual nature to how phrases are strung together, starting from the very beginning where "[a] palm slaps red to Sky's face." Her writing is without flourish but rather strips language down to an ancestral level that simply pairs words that we have forgotten belong together. It is some of the most palpable writing I have encountered in my elder millennial life.
It is too trite to say that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, though it certainly is. The band of characters work together to survive in a world of intense heat and weather that warns the reader about an imminent global warming disaster on a global scale. At its heart, though, From the Caves is more a story about stories that asks questions like what is the point of memory, of history? Sky, the nine-year-old narrator, at one point wonders "at the purpose of writing, the shadows of words after they're gone... [w]hat's talk when there's water to swallow and food to chew, and what's a past when there's work to fill the emptiness with vitals?" These questions are the core of this book. As we follow the narrative through the trials of living in a dead world, the most important question echoes through every corner of their cave, off every ripple in their poisoned ocean: Why do we hold our stories so close to our heart? What purpose do these words have?
There are five main characters in From the Caves: Sky, the young narrator; his brother, Mark; a pregnant Tie; an injured Teller; and, Green, who plummets to his death on the first page. All of the names hold deeper meanings. Green seems to represent the Earth, something that died but that, until that point, had sustained the rest. Was his death inevitable or an accident? Prieto never gives us the answer and, ultimately, it is unimportant. It is the loss of Green that hovers over the remaining, sometimes as comfort but often as trauma.
Mark and Teller represent two opposite sides of the same coin. Teller tells stories. He is the historian that treats their memories as a sort of prayer. Mark is the practical one who carries out all the tasks needed for their survival since Sky is a child and both Tie and Teller are increasingly unable to help for medical reasons. Teller and Mark oppose each other from the beginning and argue over what is more important: what sustains the body or what sustains the mind.
We learn that Mark earned his name from a scar he wears on his face but, since this is a work about stories and their influence, it's important to dig deeper. You can draw parallels with the biblical Mark. He has his own gospel in which we learn about Jesus's life from his baptism to his death. At the end of Mark's gospel, we see Jesus's burial and empty tomb but not the resurrection. The return of Christ, that promise of salvation, is not given by Mark. Rather, he simply details the life of Jesus, which again reinforces our Mark as someone concerned with the corporeal and with the minutiae of life. At the same time, this relationship paradoxically aligns him with the biblical Mark who is the biographer of Jesus. This makes the inner turmoil more dimensional as he struggles throughout the book between preserving the past and working for the present.
Another interesting parallel the reader cannot help draw from is Plato's allegory of the cave.
Throughout the book, the characters tell these foundational stories to each other. They are allegories because they exist to teach the listener/reader a lesson. Each tale resonates with origin myths from across this world and its history. In addition to Plato, I recognize influences from the bible to indigenous faiths, from Scherherazade to Dante. The characters interject to correct each other, to add to the stories and to remember differently. This is Prieto showing us how the speaker, the reader, or the one remembering each tells a different story—how each memory of the story is different and individual. While we might share the same root, a unique story blooms within our own understanding. In Plato's famous lesson, mankind is chained in a cave and only knows the world through shadows cast on its walls. Only philosophers break free from the cave and understand that our reality is merely a projection of 'what really is.' It is important to hold this story in mind when reading, especially in terms of Sky's development. On an interesting note, the name Plato is believed to come from the adjective 'broad', like the past and the future, like the sky.
The reader understands the world through Sky as the young narrator. At any early point, the characters tell a story that references a garden and an apple. When it's over, Sky asks "What is an apple?" It is a simple question used to emphasize the desolate nature of their world, how vegetation has shriveled into dust and sand. It also shows us how Sky, like all children, is ultimately the one robbed of the world and its simple joys when we reach global disaster. This question expands our understanding of Sky's innocence, something his brother Mark sees as ignorance. He is still coming to understand this world, what the world was and could be. In other words, he doesn't know the sin but still, he must suffer its consequences.
At their most desperate moment, Sky laments about "[t]heir caved bodies, their mouths, the writing—hollows within hollows." All seems lost until he realizes that "[t]he words become hollows that carry voices, like bowls hold water, like bodies hold stories and memories and families—is this the way I'm supposed to keep you?" To keep hope, to keep their memories alive, he must fill the empty parts of himself with their narratives, even if he is constructing his own parts of their stories. Sky realizes that memories are vital, just as vital as food and water because they tie us to each other and because they give us hope.
What is most unnerving about this novella is how it seems to be our reality, our current world, that is the myth told in a cave somewhere in the not-too-distant future. The characters' survival is not a straight, happy line that progresses forward. There is violence and anger and darkness that they have to navigate, and it is through these dilemmas that we understand the importance of stories, that "[t]he hopelessness opens [their] heart[s] wider, making [them] greedy for stories, for any cure at all." What I'm reminded of throughout this book is that we rely on stories to show us a way, "the way," but also that it is human nature to try and predict the end of the story before it comes. We do this by inferring from stories we've been told throughout our lives, by trying to gauge the trajectory of the arc. We want to know the end before we get there. But Prieto reminds us that we never really do know the end, even with all our guessing, and that is where hope lies—in the fact that we could still make something completely new.
Someday, when the Enemy Ocean and the sun eat each other, the world will be reborn through fire and flood. That's when Teller said all the old stories will begin again.
...A flash of inspiration, blue brilliance—the word Oh.