By Courtney Elizabeth Mauk


Engine Books
January 2013


Reviewed by Jason Cook


It starts with burning matches, holding the paper until flames lick at the fingertips. Obsession builds until a shed is burning, then a house with people inside, and finally, a family. The arsonist, Delphie, goes to prison. His mother marries an older man, and his sister, Andrea, drifts into a small, comfortable life with her boyfriend in a tiny apartment in Brooklyn. And as Courtney Elizabeth Mauk's Spark opens, Andrea, driven by an obsession of her own, narrates her attempts to make room for Delphie, newly reformed and released into her custody. There is no room in her life for the diffident, deflated Delphie, so different from the energetic brother she remembers. But Andrea, driven by a powerful and irrational guilt that remains hidden until late in the book, cannot turn him away.

Spark is a confused and confusing book, but the unexplained clutter is the brilliance of it. At the beginning of the book, Andrea is in love with her boyfriend Jack in a listless kind of way and in love with his art in an abstract kind of way. She wishes she could see the "truth" he sees, just as she desperately wants to know the ecstatic infatuation Delphie once felt for fire. She seems to stumble through her own story, never quite knowing where she is going, giving the impression that this is the way her life has been since Delphie went to prison. Her relationship falls apart and although she knows how to save it, she does nothing. An aging actress, Rain, resurrects her love life and career as Andrea spirals downward; Delphie is a stubbornly recalcitrant figure who pushes Andrea away the closer she tries to get.

Riding around in the head of a character as opaque to herself as Andrea is can be maddening, but Mauk shapes the severity of her narrator's imbalances, inviting us into obsession and unquestioned articles of faith. Andrea doesn't really know why she keeps a single book of matches in the house, even though she's terrified of triggering Delphie's pyromania. She also doesn't really understand why she is convinced that he is responsible for a string of arsons in Brooklyn. She does know, though, that Delphie's passion for arson, the power fire must have, is foreign to her—her "own wants incomplete," her "soul inadequate." She doesn't see that her brother is her obsession, her flame. She follows him like a jealous lover or lost animal, obsesses over him like a child, and sneaks out of the house when he's asleep, although he doesn't seem to notice when Andrea leaves or care very much about what she does.

Mauk has accomplished no mean feat with Andrea herself. Although she doesn't realize it, and it isn't immediately apparent to the reader, Andrea seems to be completely insane. Like any mentally unbalanced narrator, Andrea's anguish serves as a motivation that's difficult to connect with; her sense of responsibility to Delphie and her crushing guilt over what he's done are inherently irrational. But Mauk uses that unbridgeable sliver between Andrea and the reader to let us feel what she ought to be feeling. When she stalks her brother at work or masochistically presses him for details on his fatal arson, the reader feels the discomfort of the other characters, watching helplessly as she pushes them all away without ever wondering why. Like Jack, Delphie, and their mother Jennie, we watch as Andrea sacrifices relationships and personal hygiene to save a brother who doesn't particularly need or want her help. The act of nurturing her sense of guilt and responsibility for Delphie's accidental arson victims seems, for Andrea, to be its own reward.

As Andrea's madness blooms, she is driven into the streets of New York at night, looking for escape, release, and solitude. In an all-night record store, she meets the "skeletal and beautiful" creature-of-the-night, Sally, who may, but probably doesn't, actually exist. In one scene, Andrea hears someone whistling in the street below her apartment and listens as the whistling draws closer and drifts up the stairs of her building. Her strange new friend delivers an invitation to a secret cabaret. The scene is perfectly scripted, and it too-perfectly encapsulates the mystery of Sally to be real. They stomp late at night through the rain in high-heeled boots, exploring the night-shrouded underbelly of the city, courting danger in a series of surreal adventures. These scenes contrast the stuffy and claustrophobic reality of Andrea's waking life, when the cityscapes and characters of her nighttime excursions disappear or morph into unused rooms and back-alley muggers.

Luckily, Mauk spares us the contrived Fight Club-type ending where all the mystery is uncovered and reconciled. Most of the mysteries in Spark, and all the best ones, are never explained, never even seriously pursued. Stripped of her burden of responsibility and her identity as Delphie's savior, Andrea follows Sally's lead and becomes "a woman of quirks," another creature of the night asking for and offering no reasons for the beautiful dark world into which she is slipping. Spark ends with another fire, another story, beginning, with a new Andrea walking into the night that spirals out, "unfurling into endless labyrinths, one leading into the next, into the next, into the next."