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The Virgin of Flames Paperback – January 30, 2007
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From Publishers Weekly
An L.A. artist's search for identity forms the core of the diffuse but haunting new novel by Nigerian-born poet and Graceland novelist Abani. Black is a 36-year-old muralist living hand to mouth behind the Ugly Store cafe in a bleak area of L.A. He's depressed and in an existential rut: engrossed in his latest work drawing on Catholic iconography (beaten into him as a child by his Salvadoran mother), and still smarting from the disappearance when he was a child of his African father (a NASA engineer) on a Vietnam-era space-related mission, Black feels he's being followed by ghosts—namely, the biblical Gabriel, the angel of annunciation. Sometimes he converses with Gabriel in the spaceship he has constructed in honor of his father above the cafe. Black is also deeply conflicted about his sexuality; a frequenter of female prostitutes, he has recently become obsessed with a local transvestite stripper, Sweet Girl. But Black's malaise may also stem from a curse—involving a malevolent spirit that kills male children—that his father wrote him about. It's a muddle, and it's difficult to care about the plot details. But Abani touches on the far reaches of psychic pain, religious and sexual, and creates a hallucinatory despair. (Jan.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
By imagining a Nigerian Elvis impersonator in Graceland (2004) and a girl subjected to brutal abuse in Becoming Abigail (2006), Abani has established himself as an unflinching advocate for individuals exiled to society's underside. His latest hallucinatory tale of audaciously improvised lives is set in Los Angeles, a place of epic yearning. As wildfires rage in the hills and ash falls from the sky, mural artist Black seeks transcendence in his work and confronts a long-resisted metamorphosis. The son of an Igbo father and a Salvadoran mother, Black is enthralled by a transvestite stripper named Sweet Girl, entangled with a pragmatic Rwandan refugee, and dependent on a famous psychic and proprietor of a coffee shop-tattoo parlor, where business has been booming ever since the Virgin of Guadalupe appeared on the roof. Redolent of the hunger and doom of Nathanael West, lush and surreal as L.A.'s street murals, and combustible with denied eroticism and thwarted spirituality, Abani's feverish portrait of a haunted artist embodies post-9/11 anxiety and the longing for peace. Donna Seaman
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
Top customer reviews
The story is very odd, describing areas of Los Angeles that are anything but glamorous, populated by tormented people.
The author hints at memories of horrendous abuse, but he does not dwell on it and in so doing, his characters become "transhumans."
Ambiguous sexuality and race, death and desire, religiosity and uncertain faith are themes Abani returns to again and again in his writing. His main character, Black, is conflicted about his desires, and his confusion leads him to seek out those who have made unconventional choices, in hopes they will illuminate the path.
Black is an artist, a painter, but not for money. He paints murals on the sides of buildings, a type of large-scale graffiti requiring long hours hanging from pulleys and ropes. One of the more significant artworks Black had created is a huge mural of graffiti copied from the walls of men’s washrooms around the country. Entitled “American Gothic—The Remix,” the sexist, racist, religionist trash etched into bathroom stalls convey a particular wasteland of the psyche. Those phrases are interspersed with lines from renowned poets, shocking in their clarity and beauty when paired with filth.
In the City of Angels, Black is plagued by the Archangel Gabriel, who sometimes appears as a huge human figure, or otherwise as a pigeon. The appearance of the Archangel Gabriel and the Christian iconography and ideography shouldn’t surprise us: Abani was educated in a seminary in his youth, and thought he might want to be a priest. However, the Christian themes are dislocating in the context of a searching sexuality and Black’s painting of a fifty-foot veiled Muslim Virgin [Mary] on a building near a train tracks. Abani is reminding us that Islamic texts have recorded the Angel Gabriel appearing to prophets conveying news of the Annunciation or the incarnation of Christ, just as in early Jewish and Christian texts, showing commonalities these religions once enjoyed.
Many comments, observations, and philosophies expounded by the characters in this novel are in the record of Abani’s interviews. His background as a half-white Nigerian who initially moved to London and then to the United States has made him uniquely able to describe the experience of Black, as “going through several identities, taking on different ethnic and national affiliations as though they were seasonal changes in wardrobe, and discarding them just as easily.” Black’s friend, the “butcher-boy” from Rwanda called Bomboy, also seeks new identities, new documents, new names—furtively, on street corners out of sight of the police, in the no-man’s-land of east L.A., where the cops and emergency services rarely respond to calls for help.
When Black discovers that men can “become” women with some genital fiddling, his sexual liberation is complete. Whiteface and a blond wig allow him to escape his race. In a stolen wedding dress drenched in blood and turpentine, Black accidentally becomes an emblem—a horrible and disgraceful emblem—of desire, of a perverted hope. The finale of the book is classic L.A.: <a class="jsShowSpoiler spoilerAction">(view spoiler)</a><span class="spoilerContainer" style="display: none">[the Virgin Mary appears hovering above the city in a virtual “snowstorm,” to the sound of trumpets, lit from above, flames licking her white dress, adored by a crowd of the poor, the lame, and the lonely. <a class="jsHideSpoiler spoilerAction">(hide spoiler)</a>]</span>