Owen Kaelin on Kyle Muntz
Review of Kyle Muntz's Sunshine in the Valley
"[N]o one knows, but the world is loud, beneath a million roaring layers... ." These are the words of a ghost, of a girl conceived out of music, by an insular boy in an insular world wherein human interaction is a mere echo of a past existence — an existence forgotten — and love, seemingly, is only vaguely desired and cannot be known.
This world is a loud one, but it takes a ghost to hear it.
There are three essential protagonists in this story: Laura, Gidean and Jacob, all youths of undeclared age. Then there is a fourth, marginal and invasive would-be protagonist named Sarah . . . the ghost mentioned above. Although she is created seemingly for fulfillment, to solve an absence, to fill a need . . . Sarah, it turns out, is no complementary character and cannot help her creator nor any of the protagonists. She is as lost and insubstantial as they are.
Isolation and an almost utter lack of self-comprehension define not only the protagonists but the villagers as well. While some of the villagers will consciously make a 'place' for themselves in this society and put on a show of fulfilling that role . . . it typically seems a weakly performed role, and they certainly give no indication that they are any less bewildered than our three and one-half protagonists.
Even their village is hermetic, with no true history and no concept of anything beyond the high wall which encloses them. Being effectively unique in existence, this village has no name.
Nor is there a name for whatever region it is that this high, indomitable wall divides the villagers from.
Walls are of course powerful symbols, and not uncommon ones, but like everything else in Sunshine in the Valley this is no common wall. Its imposition is not external but rather internal. This wall is an organ of the villagers, snuggling within their flesh. Nobody knows who built the wall or why, but, in their isolation, it's the villagers alone who maintain the wall — both physically and conceptually — and enforce the dictate that nobody is to climb it; nobody is to leave.
At first appearance, the wall in fact seems absurdly unnecessary, since the village that these people live in — like the little valley which contains the village — comes across as an eminently idyllic place. There is no notable hardship in this village, there is no strife, no disagreement.
Yet . . . there is also no happiness.
In the end, of course, people look to religion to seek self-definition, to seek purpose. It is only natural that their imagination should focus on the ever-looming sun, and throughout the book this sun is afforded all-but-sentient qualities... growing and shrinking, extending its will to the people when it wants. This sun is not only always watching over the villagers but is also constantly judging them. ...And, of course, what the sun wants from them, and what it thinks of them, and its reasons for preventing the villagers from conceiving any more children is for anyone to guess and nobody to know quite how to answer.
In Kyle Muntz's book, everything seems simple on its surface, but when explored in any depth, nothing is at all simple. More often than not: thought brings hopeless complication and irreconcilable frustration, which is perhaps why the villagers are so incurious.
This, Sarah tells us herself: "[N]o one knows, but the world is loud, beneath a million roaring layers... ."
It must be noted — since it will occur to many readers — that the folklore symbolism of the names Jacob and Gidean are quite dubious, deceptive and faithless. Surely it's not insignificant, to begin with, that Gidean's name is spelled differently from that of the homonymous Jewish hero. Furthermore, neither of these characters plays a role even nearly consistent with the storyline dictated by his Biblical namesake.
To start with: Gidean, unlike Gideon, is anything but a leader, although he does possess the qualities of one. People are drawn to him, yet not only has he no desire to lead these people anywhere: he also enjoys no understanding of them — nor does he care to understand. Gidean is in no small way an Orphic figure, a musician whose songs possess a somewhat magical quality, but this connection, too, is unfulfilled. Unlike the legendary Orpheus he never delves below the valley's surface, and the only loss he suffers is that of something he's never truly possessed to begin with.
Then there is Jacob, whose mind is always elsewhere, whose soul belongs elsewhere, but who is no prophet, and no favorite of people or sun. Unlike the others in the village: Jacob is drawn to this land beyond the wall, and so he finds his Ladder and climbs it, extending himself to that other-world.
Yet, when he finally returns to his fellow villagers he cannot satisfy his neighbors' uncertain curiosity, and they quickly lose interest in him.
This lack of interest in Jacob does not last. The fears of the people of this village are as deep as their disconnectedness, their disillusionment. Their fear quickly fills every cranny which describes the hole inside of them.
The three and one-half protagonists of Sunshine in the Valley seem peculiar to literature, in that they possess no empathizable qualities; there seems no way that the audience can connect with them on a personal level, and yet they remain the only means we have of understanding the world that they are in, the world which we, as readers, are now in. Thus, through their eyes: we are as mystified about this cloistered world as our protagonists.
When the three youths speak to one another, it is as if they speak with words that they feel expected to say, and occasionally words that they are not expected to say but which they seem merely to want to try out in order to see what happens when one does what villagers do not do . . . and thus these experimental conversations collapse with precisely the same weight as any of the 'proper' [and emotionally empty] words they share with one another. They try their best to converse, but conversation is impotent. They try their best to relate to one another — aping friendship, aping love — and of course fail to find any consolation, not knowing what friendship or love actually means, and being incapable — perhaps by their very nature — of truly feeling anything.
Sunshine in the Valley is a richly perplexing novel: the Biblical names; the protective wall; the wind which collects around the valley's singular hill; a somewhat metaphysical cave that arrives from nowhere and from then on seems to shift places, although somehow Jacob is always able to find it . . . even the "spears of rock bashing to the ground" as mentioned by Gidean . . . all of these elements bear certain implications, but the implications are repeatedly and almost universally interrupted, confounded, redirected by the author.
Puzzle after puzzle is not just ours but that of our protagonists: the only four beings in this world seemingly capable not only of asking questions but also of feeling that their emptiness and unhappiness is perhaps worth some scrutiny.