‘Into the Interior’ by Michelle Cliff

Michelle Cliff’s first novel since the critically acclaimed Free Enterprise in 1993 begins:

I was born in the middle of the twentieth century and was raised in the age of Victoria, at least partly, for my family, older than the hills, older than the D’Urbervilles, cleaved to the past they had received, and the landscape, real and imagined, ordered and ruminated, kept it so. Traces of heresies overcome with green. Blindness is relatively common in the tropics. As is amputation.

In the first paragraph, Cliff frames some of the concerns of Into the Interior, particularly the significance of history and geography in the novel, and readers can glean the beauty and power of Cliff’s prose, rich with allusion and internal rhyme. Into the Interior is part coming of age narrative, part family history, and part imaginative exploration of the consequences of colonialism and racism. It is small novel about big ideas and vast, partially mapped internal spaces.

The people that populate Into the Interior are quirky and idiosyncratic. Whether friends and acquaintances of the narrator or people with whom the narrator has chance encounters, Cliff’s eye for off-beat characters, like Rex and Queenie in the second half of the novel, brings levity and energy to the novel. In one chapter, the narrator researches and writes a story about “the penis room” at the British Museum where a “civil servant” behind a door labeled “Member Restoration” restores penises to the original statues; when asked whether or not other body parts have been removed, he professes ignorance and quips, “Got my hands full with my chaps.” In these moments, the characters of Into the Interior sing and their absurdity animates the life of the unnamed narrator.

Landscapes are important in Into the Interior, although the book is not a travel narrative. The central trope of the title is captured more in the interior monologue of the narrator than in the action of the book. The interior is neither a central image nor metaphor but infuses the book with multiple, entangled referents. Cliff’s writing is too careful to be driven by a singular image or metaphor, although the book is filled with gorgeous examples of both imagery and metaphor. Into the Interior rejects binaries, reaching instead for the complex, the enmeshed, and the contradictory in its plot while moving fluidly among what is evoked, invoked, and provoked in the narration.

Cliff’s prose is highly stylized, rich, and allusive. The narrator collects viewings of Hedda Gabler and reads books by Radclyffe Hall and Germaine Greer. The spectre of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness haunts the title, but like Fata Morgana or the witch Morgan le Fay, it is ephemeral and elusive; present, but always absent. This is what is striking about Into the Interior throughout: presence and absence. Settings and characters are rendered through careful selection of details, marking indelibly what is written and unwritten. Besides the narrator, much is declined to be named, particularly colonialism and racism. These absences make their presence more potent. Into the Interior is a novel of big ideas, which are explored in the absent and the quotidian.

Into the Interior ends with the narrator diving off a boat into the sea where the “golden guinea [a totem connected to her grandmother] slid off my neck and was carried out to sea.” The narrator emerges after being “greeted by the mermaids of the unfathomable deep” and “washed ashore.” A single neologism concludes the book: Apocalypso. A blending of apocalypse and calypso. It is an incantation for the narrator’s life and for the narrative of the book. It both names and declines to name.

For some readers, Into the Interior may be too allusive and elliptical; it may seem more pastiche than novel. Some chapters are, in fact, stories that could stand on their own, but Cliff’s prose, alternately lush and spare, combined with the moments of humor and the delightful cast of characters, make Into the Interior a joy to read and a book which asks us to return again and again to puzzle its meanings.

By Michelle Cliff
University of Minnesota Press
ISBN: 9780816669790
Hardcover, $22.95, 128p.