To begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, arTo begin by stating the obvious: Quicksand is an aptly named book. And while its resonance with the experiences of the main character, Helga Crane, are made clear by the novel’s ambiguous concluding chapter, I also found it a perfect summation of my experience as a reader as well. For Larsen’s exquisite prose is subtly deceptive: delicate, and yet so incisive and sharply observed, and just like Helga’s moment-to-moment indecision never seems to add up to much in and of itself, Larsen quietly strings together glittering chains of little observations—the cut of a “scandalous” evening gown, the texture of an antique embroidered handbag, a spontaneous gesture to slight an annoying suitor—that suddenly, unexpectedly transform into expanses of heavy and oppressive chainmail that become suffocating. There’s a certain stasis to the narrative of Quicksand, and I initially found myself struggling against it until I realized that it perfectly mirrors Helga’s mindset and perception of both herself and the world around her.
The narrative is initially posed as a kind of tale of self-discovery, a process which ends up spanning two continents and a surprising number of racial, gendered, sexual, and class-centered milieus. And what at first seems like self-sufficiency and even courageousness begins to molder bit by bit around the edges, and the haunting line “but it didn’t last, this happiness of Helga Crane’s” begins to resurface constantly like an inevitable refrain accompanying each turn of events.
This resigned melancholy is probably why the novel never becomes sensationalistic, hysterical, moralistic, or even overtly angry, all qualities the material would seem to to easily lend itself to. Larsen’s focus seems elsewhere, which constantly leads Helga and her narrative into unexpected spaces, in both a literal and metaphoric sense. I appreciated, for instance, the depiction of the black expatriate experience in Europe, demonstrating how the escape from American racism held its own, often hidden price in the objectification of “exotic” blackness, and I couldn’t banish from my mind the specters of Josephine Baker, Paul Robson, and others while reading about Helga’s experiences in “progressive” Copenhagen. In the end Quicksand was a protracted, mournful lament instead of the harrowing shriek against racism or sexism (or any number of other social ills for that matter) that I had initially expected it would be; instead it turned out to be something more ambiguous, more difficult to pin down and get a handle on—and in the end I found myself all the more devastated because of it.
"No. She couldn't stay. Nor, she saw now, could she remain away. Leaving, she would have to come back."...more
Yep, it's one of those books. Not brilliant art by any stretch of the imagination, but consistently i"Mark wasn't happy here in this world, you know."
Yep, it's one of those books. Not brilliant art by any stretch of the imagination, but consistently interesting and displaying a sober and genuine thoughtfulness that stands in stark contrast to the hysterical melodramatics of most other gay-themed novels of its era. ...more