30 JANUARY 2019 | KAREN KAO
Jennifer Clement is president of PEN International, which makes her a hero in my eyes. PEN speaks on behalf of poets in prison, kidnapped booksellers, and journalists who get chainsawed into little pieces for writing the truth.
Clement chooses her writing topics, not for their sensationalism or marketability, but by how much they make her mad. Gun Love is her novel about guns crossing the US-Mexican border. At a recent master class in Amsterdam, Clement shared some startling statistics. 47% of guns sold in the US end up in Mexico and Central America. 20,000 guns cross the border every day. There are some 8,000 gun shops on that border. These are all low-ball estimates.
But Clement is no polemicist. She’s a poet, first and foremost. She collects words like balls of mercury in a girl’s palm: moving, re-grouping, shape-shifting.
Holes in the Ground
It took Clement seven years to write Gun Love. Her research is painstaking and her writing slow. For her novel, Prayers for the Stolen, Clement spent months interviewing inmates at a Mexican women’s prison. She sought out the women of drug traffickers until the proximity of their lives to her own became a danger.
Drug trafficking these days is an integrated business model. Extortion, gun running, human trade. Traffickers will drive through the Mexican countryside in search for pretty young girls. Their mothers have learned to dig holes in the ground to hide their children from these marauders. The little girls lie there, trying not to breathe, with only some palm fronds for protection.
That image of girls buried alive sparked Prayers for the Stolen. And when Clement finished that novel, she knew Gun Love would come next. They are a pair, a diptych, mirrors into each other’s world. Prayers for the Stolen tells how a Mexican girl might end up in the US. Gun Love tells the story of an American girl headed in the opposite direction.
That American girl is Pearl France, age 14. She and her mother Margot live in a 1994 Mercury Topaz. Pearl’s bedroom is the front seat while her mother lives in the back. That car is the only home Pearl has every known.
The car sits outside a trailer park somewhere in central Florida. The park’s sole attractions are a dump, a crocodile-infested creek, and a broken-down playground. But Pearl doesn’t mind. The main attraction of her life is her mother Margot.
My mother was a cup of sugar. You could borrow her anytime.
My mother was so sweet, her hands were always birthday-party sticky. Her breath held the five flavors of Life Savers candy.
And she knew all the love songs that are a university for love. She knew ‘Slowly Walk Close to Me,’ ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?,’ ‘Born under a Bad Sign,’ and all the I’ll-kill-you-if-you-leave-me songs.
But sweetness is always looking for Mr. Bad and Mr. Bad can pick out Miss Sweet in any crowd.Jennifer Clement, Gun Love (Hogarth 2018)
Cigarettes & Barbies
There are plenty of characters in Gun Love who fit the bill as Mr. Bad. The slimy Pastor Rex, Sergeant Bob with his prosthetic leg and PTSD, the Mexican Ray who never speaks. The women in Gun Love are equally damaged. When the handsome Eli Redmond moves into the trailer park, thirty year old Noelle decides that now is the time to relinquish childhood.
It took her several hours to dig holes all around her trailer. She used two large spoons and a fork from the kitchen as gardening tools.
When Noelle had finished digging sixty-three holes, she carried her large collection of Barbie dolls outside and one by one stuck each doll in one hole. She planted the dolls in feet first and only up to the dolls’ knees.
Clement is unsentimental about the lives these characters lead. Cigarettes, mental illness, and random shootings are all a part of daily life. Pearl becomes a thief, at first on a dare and later to feed her own nicotine habit. Eli pays Pearl in cigarettes to run off and play.
Poetry vs Prose
Clement eschews the use of foul language. She refuses to depict an act of sex or violence in bald terms. She comes at it obliquely, like an image reflected in a dozen mirrors. You see it getting closer and then farther and then, before you know it, Clement punches you in the eye.
For example, shoots is the term social workers use for children orphaned by gun violence. Their inheritance consists of the police file detailing the manner of death, together with the bullets fished out of the body. A list of gun victims reads like a sonnet as does a litany of the weapons that did them in.
When the inevitable gun death takes place, there is no hiding. There is no panic. It’s gun love. So the victim walks straight into the gun like it was
a water sprinkler on a hot Florida day in July: wet me wet me shoot me shoot me wet me shoot me.
The scenes are vivid, the characters unique, and the writing pyrotechnic. I just wish there was more story. Clement tells our master class that Gun Love has already been adapted for the theater and the film rights sold. It makes sense given the cinematic bursts of excitement that make up Gun Love.
Maybe this is the only language in which a novel about guns can be written. Or, true to her poet self, perhaps this is simply Clement creating a liminal space for guns and little girls to meet. Inside that space lives homelessness and income inequality, the border and guns. It’s a place we don’t see often in literature. This is an America where a teenage girl can learn how to pack a head-for-the-hills bag or how to cook coke. It’s a country where a girl like Pearl is never going to get a lucky break.