One word, weekly. Found in a book. Shared with you.


Word: Pentimento

Definition: (n) a reappearance in a painting of an original drawn or painted element which was eventually painted over by the artist.

Origin: It. repentance, correction, fr. pentire to repent, fr. L paenitēre -- more at penitent

Source: Seymour -- An Introduction by J. D. Salinger --

This last little pentimento, or whatever it is, has started me sweating literally from head to foot. I want a cigarette, but my pack is empty, and I don't feel up to leaving this chair. Oh, God, what a noble profession this is. How well do I know the reader? How much can I tell him without unnecessarily embarrassing either of us? I can tell him this: A place has been prepared for each of us in his own mind. Until a minute ago, I'd seen mine four times during my life. This is the fifth time. I'm going to stretch out on the floor for a half hour or so. I beg you to excuse me.


I've been carrying this word around in my pocket for weeks now. I could have chosen any number of words from Salinger's work (Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and this one collected in one slim volume). For as colloquial and chatty as Salinger can certainly be (what is it Holden calls everything? Ah, yes, lousy), he does not shrink from the right word even if it is an unfamiliar one. An incomplete list: puissance, crapulous, effulgent, tractile, panegyric, poetasters, euphony, cavil. But it is pentimento that has continued to rise up, demanding to be understood.


And then, this morning, it turned up again, in this brilliant poem by Daniel Zhang, winner of the Kenyon Review Grodd Poetry Prize for Young Writers. Seeing it there, I thought I knew what it meant, but looking it up, I was shocked to find out how wrong I was. And now, rereading both the Salinger and the Zhang, understanding blooms bright, and good god, the awe.


Perhaps you are only familiar with Salinger through Catcher in the Rye? If, like me, you come across a copy of these stories (first published in the New Yorker), do make haste to acquire it. They are not universally beloved; the Times liked Roof Beam but panned Seymour when the book came out in 1963. But, I can say - with some confidence - that my introduction to Seymour (and the Glass family) has changed my understanding of storytelling.


And my admiration has only grown now with the definition of pentimento. As an act of indecision, a hesitation on the part of the artist to reveal, a deliberate (but halfhearted) obscuring of some previous desire, this word represents everything Salinger seems to be doing in these stories. He writes brilliant dialogue, providing detailed descriptions that bring a moment fully (and often hilariously) to life, but underneath it all is the tender, bewildering reality of loss. Buddy - a writer - is the perfect narrator for this story about what it means to create, what it means to trust yourself, what it means to wake everyday to a searing void where your brother, your hero, used to be. And try though he might to obscure it, that intimate vulnerability is always just visible.


The passage quoted above arrives in the final moments of the story, just before Buddy attempts (again!) to explicate the driving purpose of his work. But in the epigraph (from Kierkegaard), Salinger shows his hand, if only you would see it:

It is (to describe it figuratively) as if an author were to make a slip of the pen, and as if this clerical error became conscious of being such. Perhaps this was no error but in a far higher sense was an essential part of the whole exposition. It is, then, as if this clerical error were to revolt against the author, out of hatred for him, were to forbid him to correct it, and were to say, "No, I will not be erased, I will stand as a witness against thee, that thou art a very poor writer."

The pentimento strikes back. It will be seen.

In a musical composition, the reprise is any section, especially one found early in the piece, that later gets repeated. When a whole song is reprised, it might be merely similar to the original, or it might be repeated with small but notable changes. In musical theater, a reprise could be an altered version of an earlier tune, but sometimes the lyrics and melody remain completely unchanged, and the singer or the circumstances of the narrative have changed, rendering it a new experience.


Reprise has its roots in the French reprendre (to take again or to take back), and its cousin -- reprisal -- represents this origin more fully, referring to acts of restitution or regaining what has been lost.


In The Electric Kingdom, David Arnold has spun a complex and light-filled story that understands both iterations of the word. In this post-apocalyptic world, Arnold has spiraled his characters into the reprise, a repetition of moments that are at once foreign and familiar, prompting the question: What would we change if we could do it all over again?


The Electric Kingdom is Arnold's fourth novel for young adults, and it is his most ambitious and, perhaps, most rewarding. From his debut, Mosquitoland, to this latest offering, he has consistently proven himself to be uniquely inventive and perceptive in his approach to writing for young people. His characters are always sharp, always full of heart, and though the trope of a found family might be familiar territory, everything else about this book is not.


It opens with a prologue of sorts, with a snowstorm and a wreck, gridlocked traffic and the onset of labor that brings a midwife and a set of expectant parents unexpectedly together. It also opens with an act of recognition. Déjà vu is sometimes called a recognition illusion because our brains convince us we have been here before. So when that new father looks into his newborn's eyes and feels a jolt of recognition, we might assume the common illusion.


But then the book launches you into a world far from that snowy night where eighteen-year-old Nico is alone in the woods, one of the few survivors of the Flies which have decimated humanity both directly (through their killing swarms) or indirectly (through the Fly Flu). Nico, with her dog Harry, is trying to make her way to Manchester, uncertain if the quest her father has sent her on is fantasy or fact, uncertain of what survival even looks like. Along the way, she encounters a few other survivors, some terrifying and dangerous, others who end up making her journey considerably less lonely and considerably more complicated.


Twelve-year-old Kit is one of those -- a constellation of a character, full of shine and unexpected depths. Though it is Nico that drives every moment of this story, Kit is its heart, the thrumming sense of goodness and hope that only a post-apocalyptic story can hold. For of course, the world is full of darkness and loss, but in this world, in the faces of these kids, there is infinite possibility. Somehow, a book about the destruction of civilization manages to remind the reader of beauty and of love and of creation.


Now take everything you think you know about a post-apocalyptic novel and drop into it a very large bucket, watch as it occupies only the tiniest corner of the bottom. The rest of the bucket is full but not in ways you'd imagine. Instead you get an examination of art, eternity, story, and love, and it's all wrapped up in a deep unsettling of time. The deeper you go into the book, the looser (or should I say tighter?) the concept of time becomes. Like concentric circles, each element is bound by another, forming a greater whole. It's a recognition illusion, arriving again at the place you feel you've been before. The reprise occurs, repeating and transforming. What starts as mere repetition can become an opportunity to reclaim what has been lost, or to reconstitute the melody and change the ending entirely. Reprise becomes reprisal.


Besides the complication of plot, this book is also packed with beautiful moments like this one:

They stood silently around the tiny grave. Out here in the death of things, so many ways for a kid to lose his rivers.

Or this from the last few pages:

Early April now, the trees are breathing and alive. Not alive like plants but like people, talking, loving, laughing. I gave them a good trim years ago, reshaped their relationship with the sun, and now the air is full of their chatter, their hands stretching toward one another, toward me, and how could I ever feel alone!

When Nico's dad first tries to explain the part of their story he's kept hidden her whole life, she acknowledges that "Stories of the old world were variations on a theme," but soon realizes:

She'd heard most of this before, but this time felt different, as if she'd only heard the variations, and now, for the first time, the original theme.

And later as Nico's story mingles with Loretta's and Lennon's and Monty's and Lakie's, you begin to understand that even in desolation, new variations are being invented. To say more would be to steal the reader's joy at discovering what Arnold is doing here, but suffice it to say: this book will leave you questioning your present and your past while still inspiring you to hope for a better future. If you let yourself fall into the loop of this story, it will not soon let you go.

Sara Beth West

(@fiftytwowest)

is a reader and a writer, offering book reviews and interviews with leading writers and thinkers.

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