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Slave Moth (Thylias Moss)

March 17, 2010

I’ve read novels in verse before, but none quite like this. The poetry of Moss’ novel really comes from the language (as opposed to the form, although that’s there as well). The image of a young slave woman stitching her words onto cloth and wearing them like petticoats is beautiful, but Moss has created so many layers of meaning around these layers of fabric. On one level, there’s the idea that this is a woman writing her way to freedom. On another level, she’s practicing an act that is forbidden, and is going about it in a poignant and deliberate manner. On yet another level, she’s defying Peter Perry by taking something he wanted her to see (the luna moth) and transforming it into her own idea (the cloth diary). Then, on top of all of that, there’s the luna moth itself: a creature that has an extremely short life span, that transforms itself via cocoon, and that cannot be contained for very long. This final layer has so many implicit meanings — Varl-as-moth, novel as bildungsroman of sorts, slavery as a possession of the body but not the mind/will, etc. Suffice it to say, the novel is accomplishing many things and tackling many different issues through this one title image.

On a completely different note, the novel has a definite preoccupation with deformity — what Varl classifies as not only physical difference (because it’s not always a “deformity” despite her continued use of that word) but also emotionally twisted situations. There are several characters who might be classified as “abject” (as Kristeva use the term) — including Albino Pearl and Dwarf Sully, who have natural differences; Jessper, who inflicts her own difference with the iron (thereby making her suddenly “interesting” to Peter Perry); and Mamalee and Varl themselves, who are intellectually different in their intelligence and their level of education. But more important to the core of the novel is the emotional deformity (depravity?) that surrounds Peter Perry. Varl describes him as a “collector” of unusual slaves, which is why he continues to search for these abject figures to bring to his homestead. Then again, he also thrives off of his mother-in-law’s death, charging people to see the hive that honeybees have made of her rotting corpse. And most significantly, there are his relationships with the women in his life: his scholarly relationship (which Varl sometimes speculates goes beyond exchanges of words) with Mamalee, his neglectful/disdainful relationship with Ralls Janet, and his oddly desirous yet abstinent (for the time being) relationship with Varl. In other words, throughout the novel, Peter Perry is depicted as the one who has the deformity (rather than those around him) because of his twisted approach to life. Even at the end, when he (plot spoiler!!) renames Perryville “Varlton” it becomes clear that the entire thing is a kind of experiment he’s performing to observe what happens with the three main women in his life (Mamalee, Varl, and Ralls Janet). In other words, he’s sick. Or, to use Varl’s word, he suffers from “extreme deviancy.”

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