The Book of Flying | “The Valleys of the Country of Death”

a novel

by Keith Miller

“’What is precious is beautiful'” (Miller, 229).

Right. So this chapter starts off with some lovely description (yay!). And Pico moves from the mountains into the desert.

As I’ve written before, I love deserts so Pico simply arriving in one is interesting to me. Additionally, this geographical stage of his journey reminds me of the Ordeal in the Hero’s Journey, where the hero faces death and, after overcoming it, obtains or receives a special item, gift, talisman, ability, etc. which is what the whole quest was about.

Similarly, the connotation of wandering in a desert, where Pico in effect abandons everything he’s brought with him so he’s stripped down to the barest minimum of himself, has a flavor of spiritual mysticism. The one who goes out into the desert. Whether this is an entirely true in practice, I can’t affirm, but in stories and philosophy books I’ve read, there seems to be a tendency of going into the desert as a means to remove oneself from the mundane necessities of the world.

Although, I don’t think this desire is dependent on going to a desert specifically; it’s probably more a way of life or thinking. And going anywhere that is more isolated from a busy living would be ideal. (And that’s not to say that deserts don’t house busy life and people, there just seems to be this trope of the desert as the frontier where everything is washed away.)

The book seems to follow this sentiment by stating that “[a] forest is mystery but the desert is truth” (220). I can’t help wondering if there’s a bit of Orientalism in there. Why is the desert so much truer than a different environment? But then I’ve never been in a desert, so I can’t comment on whether it’s scarcity of water or appearance would evoke any deeper sensibility of truth.

At the same time, the very idea of a desert revealing truth is usually for a non-native desert dweller. It’s those who live outside the desert that find truth in it. And isn’t that — defining what the desert is and how it is to be experienced — exactly what Edward Said said Orientalism was?

But again, I’ve never lived in a desert, nor do I know many people who have. If anything, I might wager that whether deserts reveal truth, they certainly require attention and adaption to live there.

That got a little long.

Aside from all that, the setting serves as a tone for this chapter and as character in it’s own right; Pico’s final interaction is with this desert, a desert that is,

“Life pared to the bone. The landscape honed, softness long ago devoured so the only rest for the eye is on the haunch of a dune, the haze of the horizon, one’s own shadow. In a grain of sand is the desert distilled. Like a morsel of the soul, bleached to it’s essence by the wind and sun” (220).

See what I mean about the “desert-reveals” thing?

From here on, metaphors abound in the text. One of my personal favorites: “Eastward an opal node lay on the horizon” (221). And “He was in an ocean of fire, in the terrible pastures of light” (221). I like it’s vividness and ferocity. It sounds painful.

As Pico plods along through the desert, I did like the acknowledgment that “There is no monotony in the desert. Within the strictures of the palette is an infinity variety of hue” (221).

He finally makes it to a well, refreshes himself, and after resting wakes at night to see a woman sitting by the well. When he sees she’s crying he asks to hear her “sorrows”, which shows that he’s learned not only to be nicer (especially to women) but to listen to them (223). He asks to know what troubles her, indicating that he recognizes her as an individual he can listen to, rather than advise (like in the castle in the mountains).

The woman, Aia, eventually tells him her story.

She was born in a city of flowers on the edge of the desert. As she says, since she was beautiful “I was given a room whose wall were mirrors and slobbering tailors were invited to make clothes to match my looks” (225).

First, I immediately thought that this does not bode well for her future. Raising her like this, to bask in her own beauty, isn’t going to cultivate a well-rounded, non-selfish persona. Second, could a similar idea work for a backstory to the queen in “Snow White”?

She mentions how she refused all suitors and “became the object of a cult, the ideal of a warped religion” (225). Did she mean that literally or just ideologically? Like her suitors worshiped her as an untouchable object of beauty but not an actual divine being.

As I’m finding in books I’ve been reading recently, there’s gender coding here, too. Aia tells how she would walk the streets accompanied by other women. And where as “envious [men] distance themselves from their rivals or fights them,…women fawn over their beautiful companions, while honing their blades for private gossip” (227).

This implies that men are direct and women are underhand. Not only is that gender typecasting (men do this, women do this), it categories each gender into oddly strict ideas of how they deal with envy. Some of it might be socially entrenched, but it still felt a little too presumptuous of what male and female behaviors are.

One day while strolling in the streets, a gardener, deemed ugly by the inhabitants of the beautiful city but admired for his lovey flowers, asks to bring floral arrangements to decorate her rooms. Aia agrees for she loves flowers. And the more often he comes, the more she strikes up conversations with him. And the longer he comes, the more unique his arrangements become.

In one case, he uses grass, and as Aia says, she and the other people in the city never looked at beauty as anything but what was obvious and bold, not the small, unexpected but equally beautiful flowers of grass. Through this connection and conversations, questions of beauty are brought up: where is beauty found? How does one see beauty? (Again, there’s some “Snow White” inspiration here.)

When her family and others notice how much time she’s spending with the florist, they begin to insult her. Saving face, she spurns him and only afterwards realizes that she loves him. Because she had no expectations, she opened up to him and formed an actual connection.

She describes how she “recited the conversations we’d had, those conversations that set me free from my mirrors” (229).

First this makes me think of Jasmine from Disney’s Aladdin because of the sense of entrapment and freedom through dialogue, which is technically how she and Aladdin initially connect (regardless of how well I think it works).

Second, I imagine that’s how love (for those who want it) should work – it should set you free and connect you.

Aia eventually sends the florist into the valleys of the country of death to pick a rare flower that grows there. This he does, but it is a flower than can only be plucked by the dead. Upon smelling it, Aia is cursed to be unable to die. Leaving her home, she now wanders through the desert, searching for her lost love and way to die.

And I’d like to know why not? Why can’t she die? Is it just a fact of the flower? Or is she being punished, somehow, for her callousness?

It ends where I started – Pico wandering in the desert, throwing away everything he owns, even his book of poetry until he is stripped down to his bottom-most, rare self.

When he drops his notebook of poetry. which has carried with all this way, I wondered: what is value? What is valuable when it comes to survival? What do you think?

next week Pico makes it to the Morning Town

Words:

source edited for better definitions

  • transientadj 1.not lasting, enduring, or permanent; transitory; 2. lasting only a short time; existing briefly; temporary:
    transient authority; 3. staying only a short time
  • muskmelon: n. 1. a round or oblong melon, occurring in many varieties, having a juicy,often aromatic, sweet, yellow, white, or green, edible flesh; 2. the plant, Cucumis melo reticulatus, of the gourd family, bearing this fruit
  • nougatn. a chewy or brittle candy containing almonds or other nuts and sometimes fruit.
  • bruitedv. to voice abroad; rumor
  • ubiquitousadjexisting or being everywhere, especially at the same time; omnipresent :
  • pumicena porous or spongy form of volcanic glass

Metaphor:

“Dunes like wrinkled eyelids, like old tusks, like scattered sliced fruit, muskmelon or mango, their sides scalloped like nets, like concave fish scales” (221).

Works Cited:

Miller, Keith. The Book of Flying: A Novel. New York, NY: Riverhead Books, 2004. Print.

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