Ben Stoltzfus
Valley of Roses
Victoria, BC: Trafford, 2003. Pp. 152. Pb. $22.95

Reviewed by Erik Nakjavani

At once striking and revelatory, Ben Stoltzfus's novel Valley of Roses bursts forth in a combination of poetic style, metaphoric profusion, and elegiac tone. This combination fits well with the fictional telling of a far-away and long-ago love story now nostalgically, that is, urgently and fervently remembered. The novel's style functions in such a way as to foreground memory as language to such an extent that it generates not only the linguistic structures, fictional elements, and narrative discourse of the novel, but also serves as the organizing principle of its thematics and consequent semantics as well. The authorial discourse of the novel's partially omniscient narrator and the childhood memories of its main character, Aaron King, born to American parents in Bulgaria, are both constituted by recollective images in their eidetic purity. These images appear at once as fresh as newly gathered rose petals and as old as memory. They organically join the past as remembrance and the present as the fictional rendering of it with a wink to the future. Stoltzfus's novelistic enterprise, formulated and carried out as such, gives birth to a lyrical complex of poetic diction and syntax with their attendant unlimited semantic and affective surpluses.

The ensemble of the images by extension also creates the narrative, its discourse, and its mythos in Valley of Roses and traverses the novel's archetypal patterns in the imaginal space and time. From whence emerge a constellation of images crucial to comprehension of the novel: irrecoverable paradise lost; Garden of Eden innocence and the birth of sensuality; burgeoning desires and early sorrow; love in peace and love in war; departure and return; and endurance and survival. Stoltzfus weaves the authorial discourse of Valley of Roses and Aaron's remembrances to make this imaginative constellation a seamless whole. To achieve this, he relies on the remembering of things past in itself as being a purifying agency, an alembic device, which distills expanses of memories by meiotic processes of omission and poetic compression. The result is an amplification of the visual, tactile, olfactory, aural, and gustatory sensations that lie at the root of memory and evoke and express it. At the deepest level, it is patently Aaron's adolescent desires that energize the recollective operations and keep them pulsating in the innermost interstices of his mind.

Stoltzfus's favorite metaphor for this elaborate process of omission under maximal pressure is the distilling of attar of roses. It is noteworthy that the rose, that most easily recognized symbol of beauty and love, also symbolizes the surfacing of the floral from primeval waters. So distillation enables the passing of the olfactory magic of roses last as a condensed gel-like substance that has the "appearance and consistency of Vaseline" and produces its charm beyond seasonal and floral transience (16). The distillation is done by a "skilled artisan, almost an alchemist," who "boils the petals, distills their essence, and transmutes the fragrance into oil" (22). Similarly, through the meiotic agencies of memory and fiction, the predominant fragrance of roses in Valley of Roses permeates its narrative and makes it redolent. The novel becomes replete with preconscious adolescent desires, love, and fantasies symbolized by the rose. As such, the preconscious constantly affects the narrator, and the narratee's waking hours and dreams control their memories. In this sense, Stoltzfus's general approach to Valley of Roses is reminiscent of Ernest Hemingway's theory and practice of omission in the art of the short story.

It is the poetics of Valley of Roses that renders it poignant and plurisignificant. In Valley of Roses language itself becomes an actant, so to speak, operating at the level of the novel's deep structure. It is this plurisignificant language that intimates the novel's true beginning with A, the letter of Aaron's unconscious fear of primal abandonment, disguised as his childhood concern with being adopted. It then moves toward the threefold symbol Z, standing for Zhivka, as the feminine principle, and Z, as in zero, the all-important number 0, generative of all mathematical values rather than merely naught. Zero, whose origin is the Arabic sifra, or "cipher" or "code system," ushers in the age of semiotics, and interpretation as deciphering of code systems. Furthermore, in the register of interpretation of dreams, Z resonates as instincts, urges, and impulses that sustain life as well as the naught of preconception and the possibility of death. Aaron finds refuge in Zhivka and is reborn into life in the fold of love and emerges on the other side of primal fear of abandonment. Zhivka makes up a cipher or a hermeneutic code of him in Valley of Roses that only the act of reading can decipher. The alphabet of human life that, conceived by woman, commences as A, ends in woman, Z, as continuation and procreation in a universal continuum.

What comprises Valley of Roses is a sustained narrative of memory as loss within the matrix of an expansive, self-regenerating compound metaphor. And a fine novel it is.