Friday, August 2, 1996

Snakebite Sonnet, by Max Phillips

A review of Snakebite Sonnet, by Max Phillips
Published August 2nd, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Venom Wearin’ Denim
Max Phillips Stuns with Debut Snakebite Sonnet

Snakebite Sonnet
By Max Phillips
Little, Brown, $22.95

In the first chapter of Max Phillip’s debut novel, Snakebite Sonnet, the ten-year-old protagonist, Nick Wertheim, attempts to suck the snake venom out of the nineteen-year-old Julia Turrell’s leg. “If Julia had to die for me to suck her leg,” he thinks, “then it was worth it. I’d die too, of course; fair’s fair… I couldn’t bear to spit Julia’s blood on the ground, so I swallowed, thinking, Better Not.”

Although the snakebite wasn’t poisonous, this scene introduces perfectly Nick’s obsession with the venomous Julia. A stranger to Nick’s halcyon childhood, Julia dazzles with her fast lifestyle—her wild clothes, her poetry, her lovers—and Nick is snared at first glance: “The first time I saw Julia, I wanted to lie down with her, though I was 10 years old and had no idea why I wanted to lie down with her, or what I might do about it once I had.”

What follows are twenty-one years of sheer agony, in which Nick plays puppy dog to the oblivious Julia. He misses out on all of life’s normal milestones, because Julia’s overwhelming predominance in his life eclipses all other influences. Because he meets her before puberty, she marks his sexual awakenings, and all his future desires entail her. He never learns to fall in and out of love; he never learns to be independent; and although he goes through all the motions, he never develops a wholly singular identity.

Although Nick’s obsession is the central issue, Phillips never allows Snakebite Sonnet to fall into the monotone that obsession so easily brings. The novel is intense but also subtle, building and layering to create a vision of human weakness that transcends Nick’s single narrative voice. Phillips employs innumerable visual and tactile cues—snakes, sisters, and lots of sex—sending the reader deeper and deeper into novel: farther, in fact, than Nick’s own understanding of the story.

Perhaps Phillips’ most interesting accomplishment is the novel’s intricate construction. Arranged into fourteen chapters, Snakebite Sonnet is both a poem and a novel. A line from Julia’s “Snakebite” sonnet heads each chapter, and it’s difficult to separate cause and effect: Because Julia gives Nick her sonnet, does the sonnet dictate the novel’s structure, or vice versa. Like Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, which uses a similar device, Snakebite Sonnet is an intricate game with endlessly circling signifiers. But the game’s power is never overshadowed by technical cleverness.

Although this novel’s overt narrative deals exclusively with memory, it’s ultimately about redemption; it’s about the future and how to move into it. But it’s not an easy redemption, nor an ideal one. Nick knows he’ll never fully recover from Julia, and like a heroin addict, he “chooses life” at the cost of a great compromise.

With its 300 pages of anguish and frustration, this novel’s overall effect is draining. It leaves a void in the reader’s mind and heart, but this void—like the dull ache of loss—is more welcome than any answer that the novel could possibly give.

Like his character Julia, Phillips amazes with his luxury and extravagance. His narrative resources and poetic gifts are already fully formed, making Snakebite Sonnet one of the finest and most heartbreaking debuts in recent memory. The only problem is that this novel is so good, so exhausting, and so all-encompassing that it’s hard to imagine anything beyond it.

—David Wiley

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