KINGDOM BY THE SEA | By Amy Parker
In the past few months, I’ve heard and read a lot of commentary on the works of Nabokov and the ever-controversial Lolita. Today we’re not discussing Nabokov’s novel itself, but rather an intricate and dangerous short story called “Kingdom by the Sea,” published this fall by Amy Parker in Interfictions.
Ms. Parker’s story is a reaction to and reimagining of the Nabokovian classic that fills in a lot of backstory for the novel’s debutant, allowing her identity to deepen; here, she is more than simply her master’s plaything. This piece is not a retelling but an entirely different story with a markedly different trajectory, a story whose intersection with the original tale of Humbert Humbert and his cherished Lo recasts the original in a very different light.
A little bit of context: Nabokov’s Lolita was originally published in 1955 in Paris, then in New York and London. Easily the most well-known of Nabokov’s works, this novel has gone on to find a cherished place in the Western canon, receive inclusion in numerous “Best of the Century” book lists, and inspire films, musicals, critical texts, and even our modern lexicon (i.e., “Lolita” = jailbait). Truly, Nabokov’s virtuosity as a prose stylist, his hilariously deranged protagonist-narrator, and his mordant analysis of our cultural priorities have made the novel Lolita one of the most thought-provoking and influential books of the 20th century.
Here’s the SparkNotes version:
An adult man, a stranger, shows up and kidnaps an underage girl, then rapes her again and again and again.
That’s the story.
True, it is a story of obsession, a story of a narcissist who exploits a weaker person to fulfill his own selfish interests; it is a story of gender roles and sexual politics, our culture’s infatuation with youth, objectification and exploitation of the female sex, and many other things, too. It’s complex, and I’m not sure what was going on in Mr. Nabokov’s head when he wrote this book decades ago, but surely he had a lot of other themes and concerns he wanted to explore as well.
Still, when you get down to it, it’s a novel about a guy who kidnaps and serially rapes a little girl, for years.
You may have read the now-viral commentary by Rebecca Solnit on the subject of Lolita, patriarchal oppression/suppression in literature and literary discussion, and related things over at LitHub. Without bothering to read the 50-mile comment thread at the bottom of the article, take it from me that it’s a thought-provoking piece and worth a read. I suppose part of the commentary’s value is its argument that Lolita, stylistic elegance and satirical value aside, is sort of a quintessential work of patriarchal oppression and suppression of the female experience in literature. Which isn’t to say the novel doesn’t have value; it’s a dangerous book, though, and I suppose sometimes the literary scene disregards this danger when they see the shiny and golden “Western Canon Seal of Approval” on its cover.
The piece we’re talking about today, as I said, is Amy Parker’s “Kingdom by the Sea,” which traces the story of Lolita (legal name Dolores, and at times Dodo, Lo, etc.) before she meets Hhim (the conflation of Humbert Humbert’s initials and the menacing nondescript masculine pronoun), after she’s escaped from Hhim and found herself married to another man and pregnant at seventeen. There are only occaional and fleeting callbacks to her captivity with Hhim.
For all its darkness, all its anger, there is a lot of wordplay happening in this story, things like puns and entendres, and a great deal of emphasis on names and naming.
As we’ve all learned from introductory college lit classes, or maybe just from reading the Bible, there is an implicit power in the act of naming: that douchey guy in high school who gave you a regrettable nickname did so simply to exert and display his (perceived) power over you; Adam got to name the animals because the Lord granted him dominion over them; and Humbert Humbert (Hhim, in this story) comes up with his own “pet name” for Dolores: Lolita. In the novel, as well as this story, HH’s naming is less an act of endearment than a proprietary matter.
Thus we begin this story with references to a few of the girl’s names: Dolores, Lo, and her childhood name Dodo. The author then makes an interesting move by taking us out of the narrative entirely and riffing on the term Dodo, giving us some backstory on the poor extinct dodo bird, and setting up a natural parallel between the girl and the bird–both of which meet their demise at the hands of cruel men. This is not the only girl-animal parallel the author sets up in this story.
This story could be called a work of experimental fiction. Not that anyone can agree on what experimental fiction is, but I’ll offer up a few bullet points on just why I think this is a very effective experimental work:
- The story grew from another text, and as such both challenges and remixes its source material; the story is at war with itself.
- The piece gives voice to the voiceless: in this case, the voice of Dolores (she is not Lolita in this story because this is her story). If we subscribe to Rebecca Solnit’s observation on literary history, we could argue that any story that offers a truly female perspective–not filtered through patriarchal POVs and outmoded literary constructs–is something of a revolutionary act, and the experimental is revolutionary–at least quietly so.
- Finally, this piece makes occasional use of quotes from the original novel, making this story sort of an inter-textual conversation (more of an argument, really). One of my favorite Nabokovian lines even makes a cameo: Ah ah ah, said the little door…
I’m going to exit my bullet points now before making my final point about this very effective (and did I mention gorgeously written?) short story. That point has to do with the very “meta” direction the piece takes at the end: the author breaks the fourth wall, or some wall at least, and goes after Nabokov himself. She doesn’t implicate him explicitly, but check out this passage from the end of the story:
Go ahead. Keep writing Dolores into HHis bed, into her grave. Mock her, love her, murder her, knock her down or knock her up. Lie about her. Dolores will not die. You can’t fix our Dolores with death. You can’t prevent her escape. So play your games. Turn her rape into an origami shape a reader can fold and refold obsessively, or make of her tale a Mobius strip, where Dolores is on both sides and neither. Go on, wax acrobatic, let people peep through the cracks in your voice and play out your end game.
She’s not speaking to Humbert Humbert here. If anyone, she’s calling out Vladimir fucking Nabokov Hhimself and holding Hhim accountable for the actions of Hhis narrator.
Yes, we’ve all been taught to separate the author from the text, to leave the author inculpable no matter how horribly his characters may behave.
This story says Fuck No to that. This story points out, and this is sort of interesting, that Nabokov was not only a novelist but a noted lepidopterist–one who studies and collects butterflies.
And who is Dolores, who is Lolita but another sample, another beautiful butterfly pinned to a board, suffocated under a pane of glass, deprived of subjectivity?
This story does not let Humbert Humbert have the final word. This story does not let Nabokov have the final word–in fact, it calls him out as yet another literary icon who suppresses the female experience.
True, Dolores does not get the final word either; she’s been fucked to death. Still, the narrator is a sympathetic one, and she voices the girl’s pain and tragedy quite beautifully.
And that voice, rightfully so, is very, very angry.