Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach
By Aris Janigian
Regent Press Printers & Publishers, 2019
Whether it’s Bloodvine (2003)—Aris Janigian’s first novel of immigrants trying to make it in a new world that many cast aside as “old-fashioned”—or Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach (Regent Press 2019), his latest, quintessentially “modern” novel of sex and desire, what ultimately emerges in Janigian’s writing is his passion for his story. Janigian has strong feelings about what is happening around him and delights in giving expression to his observations, thoughts and ideas.
Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach opens with the narrator, a tenure-track professor who feels alienated from his community, sitting in the glamorous living-room at Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica, California, waiting for Sophia, a former student who has captivated him with her beauty and especially her intellect. Having ordered his first martini, he reflects on the campus rape case he has been asked to adjudicate, and subsequently on a culture that virtually denies men the right of “touching or being touched” without inviting accusations of sex abuse. The professor is eventually taken off the case and forced to retire because, as the dean alleges, he was more on the side of the perpetrator of the crime than the victim. As the story unfolds, so do the many questions Janigian invites the reader to contemplate. Who is the “victim” in the case? Are men as vulnerable as women? In his attempt to be fair, Janigian combines the distinct voices of his students in a graduate seminar, but Sophia’s view dominates. We may indeed have ”gone too far in condemning men.”
Much like its predecessor, Waiting for Lipchitz at Chateau Marmont, whose title the novel evokes, Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach is a critique of the “Decadence and Farce” at the heart of our civilization, which, quite fittingly, happens to be the title of Sophia’s doctoral dissertation. Among other things, Janigian exposes the corruption of academia and the inequities in the positions of men, busy grabbing power, and of women who are armed with a new aggressiveness and a new awareness of their “rights.” In our efforts to be “correct,” we have created a “hyper-sensitive world,” “sanitizing our humanity into a kind of extinction,” writes Janigian.
Throughout the book, Janigian invokes the “human condition” and offers the redeeming power of faith in God as a way out of the defilement of the “human situation.” It may be difficult to reconcile the good Catholic girl faith of Sophia in the grace and the mercy of a benign God with the utter “pointlessness of existence itself; the banality of our hopes and dreams.” That the two extremes are intertwined, in other words, that “Love has pitched his mansion in/The place of excrement” (Yeats), is hardly a new idea. What stands out in Janigian is his commitment to exposing the “excess” (Blake), thereby forcing us to take a good look at our lives and to ponder how we became immersed in “what is base and mundane…catapulting ourselves over the abyss we stand at the mortal edge of.”
I confess that reading “one of the most chilling stories I’d ever heard,” a personal narrative of pimps, of enforcers and escorts, a close friend of Sophia’s shares with the professor, was not easy. I have always cringed at the thought of guns and of violence. Yet, the convincing accuracy (alas!) of Janigian’s details and his skillfully drawn characters shift the reader’s focus away from the horrors of the “slammin’ at my head, whack, whack, whack,” of hearing “my own skull crack, split open like a pinata,” or of “blood drip-dripping from the ends of my hair,” to the urgency of finding an alternative to the phoniness of our lives. When “the surface, as they say, has become the deepest thing,” looking for something outside of the earthiness of our existences, in other words, looking for “a radical otherness,” to borrow Sophia’s words, becomes mandatory.
Once again, the novel ends by validating the power of the spiritual to bring integrity and beauty back into our lives. It would be difficult to miss the symbolism of the professor’s, “All at once, it seemed that the room was glowing from within: the champagne and vodka, the gin and priceless sake sweating in a huge silver chalice at the bar…all of it a most exquisite stage to enact our human drama,” as he looks up and sees “my Sophia, coming through the door.” Nonetheless, Janigian prefaces his book with two epigraphs that clearly debunk the notion of an honest religion, or even of a merciful God. If the decadence is here to stay, can’t we at least trust Sophia’s “Father in heaven, source of all goodness and love” to heed our prayers and to guide us through the destruction and the pain? Janigian’s is perhaps a suggestion of the necessary tension between the dark promptings of hell and the illuminating power of heaven.
Ultimately, what one leaves the novel with is the brilliance of Janigian’s storytelling. Janigian’s insights into our culture and his masterful use of language make Waiting for Sophia at Shutters on the Beach a powerhouse of words and ideas.