The Sky Below by Stacey D'Erasmo
by The Editors
Myth and art are crucial to Stacey D'Erasmo's The Sky Below, her third novel. Her protaganist, Gabriel Collins is preoccupied with finding transformation through the fantasy of ancient myth. At first Gabriel pursues art as a path towards this transformation, but D'Erasmo resists the notion that art can change our lives.
For the first half of the novel, The Sky Below is in conversation with Anne Carson's The Autobiography of Red. D'Erasmo's Gabriel is a young, gay boy using art as an outlet as he comes of age. There are classical allusions and (wished for) transformation into a bird. But the links to Carson taper off as Gabriel becomes an adult and learns that art has a limited reach in salvation. D'Erasmo is more interested in the mechanics of transformation. All of her full-fledged characters transform: Gabriel's mother from a light-hearted dreamer into a steeled worker; Sarah, Gabriel's friend and fellow artist, from a fragile artist into a woman who wants to marry and settle down; Caroline, Gabriel's sister, from moody dreamer into serious artist. There is some belief early in the novel that beauty and art can trigger the transformation Gabriel is looking for, but we find that it's the intense relationships Gabriel develops with his fellow residents at the Mexican commune that produce what he's been seeking. The isolation Gabriel has cultivated in his art is ultimately what must be destroyed.
The novel begins by tracking Gabriel's childhood move from Massachusetts to Florida and the trials he faces there. This portion of the novel captures beautifully the make-believe of childhood and how, after trauma, it can linger into adolescence. Gabriel's father left the family at an early age, forcing his mother to take a job as a motel manager in Florida where Gabriel enjoys his position as a pariah and experiences a sexual awakening in the men's bathroom at the local bus station. Dealing drugs, light prostitution, hoarding money that could be of real use to the family, Gabriel's exploits draw the reader into this complicated self-destructive behavior and turn the grimness of his situation into a frightening mirror.
At college in New Mexico, he discovers the outlet of visual art and turns his tendency towards appreciating the beautiful and collecting objects into art making. Gabriel's art form is a kind of diorama—he culls detritus from his life and other's and arranges them in boxes titled either obscurely or directly. By framing these objects, Gabriel tries to capture their resonance.
Ultimately, it's not art that saves him. It takes illness, fleeing to a commune in Mexico and meeting a gifted little girl to complete the journey he spent his life muddling through, excising the demon lingering in him since his father drove off one night without saying goodbye. Once that final transformation is complete, Gabriel reflects, “The gods had their way with me and now it's over.”
D'Erasmo prose weaves seamlessly a lyric and crystalline background, while the narrative progresses smoothly forward; the magic and beauty occur in D’Erasmo’s control of hard-edged story-telling and poetry. The majority of Gabriel's life is covered and in the middle of the book it can feel a bit rushed; Gabriel's episodes in New York City are not as strong as those in Florida or Mexico. But we are transported while we read and find in Gabriel a character we can empathize with and want to sometimes shake some sense into. While there is no direct moralizing in this book, we do get a sense by the end that in life and art, solitude will not do.
The Sky Below, Stacey D'Erasmo
HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, 2009