Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1731
In a nonlinear novel that asks what circumstances could push a law-abiding citizen to become a criminal captor and torturer, Percival Everett’s The Water Cure explores one father’s quest to avenge his daughter’s murder and to bring sanity into his suddenly insane life. Ishmael Kidder’s eleven-year-old daughter Lane’s body is discovered in a park by two schoolboys after she had been missing for two days. One minute Lane was standing on her mother’s lawn playing with her bike, and the next minute she vanished from her parents’ lives forever. The totality and the quickness of the act, as well as the fact that no one saw anything, causes a grieving father to contemplate: “And so a longstanding philosophical question was answered for me: if your child screams in the forest and there is no one around to hear, does she make a sound? It turns out she does not.”
Lane’s premature and brutal death elicits unquenchable desires for revenge. Lane’s rapist and murderer is apprehended, but he is released after questioning and later captured by Ishmael, who follows him out of the police station. The capture allows Ishmael to have his revenge, to which he confesses, “I am guilty not because of my actions, to which I freely admit, but for my accession, admission, confession that I executed these actions with not only deliberation and premeditation but with zeal and paroxysm and purpose, above all else purpose, that I clearly articulate without apology or qualification.” So opens The Water Cure, setting the pace for a thrilling and hypercerebral novel that explores unconditional love and hate, motivations for revenge, human thought processes, and the fundamental factors that determine one’s actions and communication.
The protagonist’s life has changed against his will, both through the death of his daughter and through the capture of her assailant, whom Ishmael refers to as Reggie or W. Ishmael no longer defines himself by the life he created for himself and his family but rather by determining the fate of the prisoner in his basement. Although he wishes that the man tied to a board in his house meant nothing to him, he reluctantly admits, “You are also, sadly, importantly, necessarily the existential proof of the sincerity of my so-called convictions, among other things. I believe it is true, and this might be one of the ills of our culture, that no judge among us really has the courage of his convictions.” As Ishmael slowly tortures Reggie mentally and physically, Ishmael changes from victim to perpetrator and transforms Reggie as well: “You were the sinner, but now you are the punished, someone new altogether. The question is, are you the same man?” The question can also be posed to Ishmael himself, although the reader might ask if there is any man left in Ishmael at all.
Ishmael, in fact, has lost all sense of self, for his former self died with his daughter. He lives alone in Taos, New Mexico, after divorcing his wife, Charlotte. He trusts no one, to the extent of bringing his own food to restaurants. Ishmael supports himself through the publication of romance novels under the pseudonym of Estelle Gilliam, further removing Ishmael from reality, but knows that “I simply am of course who I am, Ishmael Kidder, but I am better known as Estelle Gilliam, the romance novelist.” His agent, Sally Lovely, the closest semblance of a friend he has, visits Ishmael to review his writing (which has ceased) and to check on his well-being. She hears noises emanating from the basement that Ishmael passes off as the normal sounds old houses make. Satisfied, but still concerned for him, Sally leaves, and Ishmael is once again alone.
Of course, Ishmael is far from lonely. In addition to Estelle, his alter ego, and his captive in the basement, Ishmael has marijuana-induced conversations throughout the book with historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Socrates, Aristotle, and Samuel Beckett. Through these conversations, Everett sheds light on the motivating factors and beliefs that Ishmael relies upon to justify his actions, be they religious, cultural, moral, or legal. In one such conversation with Benjamin Franklin, Franklin asks Ishmael if he intends to kill his victim, and if so, does he approve of cruel and unusual punishment, to which Ishmael replies, “I suppose I’d have to know first what is not cruel and what is usual. If not cruel is kind, then is it in fact punishment? And it seems to me that kind punishment sounds a bit unusual,” giving the reader insight into the logic of the protagonist and the wordsmith talents of Everett.
At times, Everett reveals a tender, human side to Ishmael in between his bouts with insanity and his moments of torture. It is the tenderness and introspection of his character, the relentless torture Ishmael lives under, that is revealed when he laments, “Daily, I slice away at my love for my daughter, at my guilt for surviving, at my resolve for revenge and slice away at merely myself, and it remains painfully obvious that I’m all still here, always big enough to be cut a million more times. And so, no matter how small I become I remain infinitely, miserably, painfully, laughably, eternally, and interminably large.” The passage reminds the reader what horrific events have shaped the protagonist, having lived through something no one should ever have to face. He remarks that survivors, no matter what they have endured, always have to battle to survive, and feel the guilt of doing so. Survivors must work to make it through every day while “the dead are still dead. No matter who lives or dies, the dead remain dead. That is all the dead have to do, all that is required of them, to stay that way.” Ishmael learned of life through his daughter’s death even though “she had been too young to truly imagine death, too young to have understood enough of life to cherish it, but old enough to have taught me to do so.” Throughout The Water Cure, Everett cryptically shares Ishmael’s revelations on life, what defines a person, and what motivates his or her actions.
Everett displays Ishmael’s mental anguish and grief not only through his thoughts and speech but also through the very letters and type he employs. In an E. E. Cummings fashion, Everett plays with words, their meanings, and their physical structure, misspelling them, repeating certain letters, spelling words phonetically, and finally deconstructing language down to its basic elements and turning it into random strings of characters. The grammar and syntax cause confusion and frustrate the reader at times as the chapters become increasingly difficult, and at times impossible, to decipher. As this linguistic confusion grows, Ishmael’s insanity also increases, allowing the reader to experience his mental breakdown through a schizophrenic writing style. Everett jumps from one chapter (consisting of a few paragraphs) describing memories of Lane, to another chapter that describes the torture being inflicted on her murderer, to another chapter in which Ishmael is within a philosophical debate with Aristotle, to another chapter where Everett spells all words phonetically, making it difficult for the reader to decipher the intended meaning at times, to another chapter in which Everett literally strikes random keys with no hope of construing any words or meaning whatsoever. The constant jumping from style to style is hard on the reader and at times takes away from the overall cohesiveness of the novel.
In the few moments of clarity sprinkled throughout the novel, Everett expresses his discontent with the George W. Bush administration as the narrator openly examines the administration and its influence on American culture and society, claiming that the United States has become an amoral, unquestioning, and bloodthirsty, revenge-driven country. Everett uses Ishmael, a law-abiding citizen turned torturer, as a symbol of what American society as a whole has devolved into and how the world sees this society. Ishmael takes the method of torture he inflicts upon his prisoner from one of the torture methods the Central Intelligence Agency condoned at Guantánamo Bay, Cubathe water cure, or waterboarding.The practice of waterboarding was once referred to as the water cure. The subject is bound (as in tied up not headed for) in my case with duct tape to a board with his head positioned lower in elevation than his feet, taped up tight so that he cannot move and then a rag is tied tightly over his face, and then water is slowly poured onto the cloth. The subject, I prefer the term victim, has trouble breathing and becomes fearful that he will drown, that he will die of asphyxiation.
Ishmael justifies his torture by claiming to be patriotic, claiming that Americans have all become war-loving, pain-inducing, and vengeful for personal reasons or no reason at all. Everett takes a bold and controversial position, as Ishmael questions the difference between his child’s murderer and a United States soldier, “Not a popular thing to say, but they are trained killers. Just because they are our young men doesn’t make them good young men, not down to a man, not every single man. After all, they have chosen to carry guns.”
While Everett makes extremely insightful glimpses into grammar and linguisticsas well as into the effect the Bush administration has had on the American psyche and international imagethe lack of structure within certain passages, and the attacks toward, and disregard of, the reader, at times detracts from the novel on the whole. Everett sums up his novel when he writes,The words on these pages are not the story. The words on these pages are not this story. The words on these pages are the words on these pages, not more, not less, simply the words on these pages, one after the another, one at the beginning and one at the end, bearing possibly some but probably no relation to each other, but they can, if you desire to find a connection, need to, or if it irresistibly, axiomatically, ineluctably reveals itself to you.
Everett places a tremendous responsibility on readers not only to comprehend but also to construct the story themselves. Basic foundations and clues are laid down, but the reader must construe the story, its past and future, from an almost nonexistent plot.
Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 30
Booklist 104, no. 1 (September 1, 2007): 57.
Kirkus Reviews 75, no. 14 (July 15, 2007): 683.
Library Journal 132, no. 16 (October 1, 2007): 58-59.
Los Angeles Times, September 16, 2007, p. R6.
San Francisco Chronicle, September 16, 2007, p. M1.
The Washington Post, August 26, 2007, p. BW04.
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