Refracted Dreams in the New World

Salvatore Scibona

In The End Salvatore Scibona presents a powerful discourse on the realities of being an immigrant in a country where hopes and dreams can fast turn to poverty and loss.

In June of this year, Salvatore Scibona featured in the New Yorker’s “20 under 40”, a venerable list of writers who the editors feel “dazzlingly represent the multiple strands of inventiveness and vitality that characterize the best fiction being written in [America] today.” His debut, The End, has already won a handful of prestige prizes in the United States, including The Young Lions Fiction Award and was also a finalist for the National Book Award. Scibona’s startlingly original novel, due to be published in the UK this autumn, absolutely represents everything that is so rewarding about modern fiction – innovative use of language; a radical approach to perspective, style and structure; and a mastery of storytelling that one would expect from a more experienced author. The End is an ambitious, sometimes challenging, but always rewarding novel that refuses to allow the reader to sit back and relax, but rather pulls them by the hand through a world of lyrical realism that stays with them long after finishing the last page.

Scibona spent over 10 years writing The End. It is a novel that almost defies description as it doesn’t immediately slot into an easily identifiable literary genre nor does the story lend itself to précis. Part of the complexities of the novel derive from Sciobna’s idiosyncratic style; his writing is that rare mix of highly stylised yet vividly real. The End could be described as a modern literary novel with a mystery at its heart, but it is also much more than that. There are layers of narrative that intertwine in the way that lives intertwine and Scibona is extremely deft at weaving them together. To say that the novel depicts one event on a single day in 1953 from six different perspectives, is to massively over-simplify the story; yet that is probably as close as it is possible to get to an answer to, “what is it about?” That one event takes place in an Italian neighbourhood called Elephant Park in Ohio, where immigrants have settled first from Italy and then from other parts of the United States. Together they have forged a community bound by their foreignness and united in their desire to make a better life for themselves and their families, in this, their new country.

Taking a step back from the book, it feels as though Scibona must have set out with the aim to chronicle the Elephant Park community during that period with all its comings and goings, but that wasn’t strictly the case. Scibona describes a recording by an American folklorist, John Lomax, who spent much of the depression recording local music at a time when records were putting an end to word of mouth learning of songs: “In 1940, he made a recording of a schoolgirl named Ora Dell Graham singing an obscure playground tune called ‘Pullin’ the Skiff.’ After she sings the song you can hear him ask her, ‘And where did you learn that?’ And she says, ‘I just – I just learned it by just going on singing it.’” Scibona goes on to explain that that also represents his approach to writing: “I go to my studio. I open the hatch in the floor, lower the bucket into the unconscious, and see what comes up. When the things it pulls up require research to fill out properly, I go to the library. I try to rely on first-hand accounts, letters, and diaries. I talk with old people a lot.” This combination of drawing from his imagination and using authentic historical research results in a novel that resonates with the past, which itself feeds into one of the unifying themes of the story, that of the experiences of the immigrants who went to America at that time.

Part of Scibona’s research took him to Italy: “There are no longer any big neighbourhoods of Italian immigrants in America. So I lived in Italy for a year and tried to do the whole thing in reverse. It was quite excruciating. I don’t wish immigration, especially immigration without family, on anyone.” Each of the characters who feature in the novel are immigrants or the next generation of those who gave up everything to come to the land of plenty. Scibona’s handling of the trials and tribulations of these characters is subtle in that he doesn’t deliver a story unrelentingly full of woe and heartbreak, but neither does he shirk away from portraying lives that are shaped by poverty and loss. These are people who made a choice to leave the country of their birth, their families, even their language and their heritage, to go to America in search of something so simple yet often so elusive – a better life. Out of this overarching theme of immigration comes an idea that the lives of the immigrants are shaped by the consequences of their actions, but also of their dreams and their desires. Their lives are not simple nor can they be while they try to make sense of those consequences. They try to live in a way that honours their decision to improve their lot whilst facing their daily struggles to be the person they want to be – an American.

The End offers an insight into a huge part of America’s history – that of the creation of a nation. Scibona’s handling of the subject is certainly moving, but there is another side to the community and those who live in Elephant Park. So often when those who share a common heritage are drawn together, an enclave mentality and even racism towards anyone who is different can develop, as Siconba explains: “The immigrants there are desperate for America to be the land of outrageous prosperity for which they had hoped. That America is no such place is obvious to anybody, but it is deeply important to all of us that we are able to maintain this idealised hoped-for thing or place, for which we have sacrificed so much. To say, ‘America has been wonderful, and it has also been a disaster’ would be to admit that the ideal is lost. If you are going to maintain the ideal, you have to reject the ambiguity, and you have to find some kind of pail into which to dump all the dross, all the suffering you’ve met in this new place, someone to blame for the imperfections. Enter racism, nativism, and so on.” This need to blame is all too common in our society. Racism forms an integral part of the events described that one day in August 1953. A religious march is halted and the crowds rapidly dispersed because a group of black people start dancing in the street. This causes a rumour to spread of impending trouble and the involvement of “negroes” is enough for panic to escalate through the Italian community.

As unpleasant as this episode of racism may be, especially to the modern reader, it does help to illustrate the need of the community to reinforce their collective identity by simply sticking together. Yet, as Scibona skilfully illustrates as his novel progresses, this sense of identity is in flux, they are a group of Italians who want to be Americans. All of the characters are driven by this desire and for Scibona it is an integral part of his novel: “All of the most emotional moments of the book, for me, involve a character making a tremendous sacrifice to maintain the object of his hope, his end. Rocco sacrifices his common sense to maintain the hope that he can bring his sons and wife back home to live with him. Or else a character makes the other tremendous sacrifice, of acknowledging that the ideal was always only an idea. One we have to give up, if we are ever to touch what exists outside our fantasies.”

Rocco and Mrs Marini, along with Lina, Enzo and Ciccio are five of the main characters whose lives overlap and run into each other. There is a sense in the novel that the cause and effect of fate is unavoidable, but each of the characters makes decisions and those decisions directly impact on someone else’s life or even a group of lives. The outcome of these choices range from life-changing to life-destroying and each in turn drives the narrative and sets the scene for the next episode in the story. None of the choices or the consequences are obvious, which makes The End a page-turner of the highest quality. Although immigration and the impact of leaving one country and arriving in another is clearly a huge part of Scibona’s work, the long-lasting impression is of a novel which deals with two deceptively simple things – be careful what you wish for and be careful what you choose.

The End by Salvatore Scibona was published by Jonathan Cape in November 2010.

Rachel Hazelwood