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Visions of visions

Novelist sees a utopia in the Midwest

A perfect world: Annette Gilson pens a paradise.
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Published 1/31/2007

You can't help but be charmed by Beth, just as you also can't help but be charmed by her creator, 42-year-old Annette Gilson.

Seated inches from Gilson (she in a brown leather chair, I on a small couch beside) at a Caribou Coffee, I somehow feel as if her exuberance is catching — as if her enthusiastic eyes and dramatic charm make me more dramatic and charming.

I am thrilled to be talking to Gilson tonight: thrilled to be gathering juicy morsels concerning her first novel, New Light. During our conversation I realize — as she accentuates her words with wild hand gestures and impulsive laughter — that I like her for the same reasons I like New Light's narrator-protagonist Beth.

When I ask the clichéd question "How much like Beth are you?"— Gilson playfully groans, replying: "She's really different from me. Personality-wise, Beth is more closed-off, more afraid of the world than I have ever been."

An associate professor of creative writing and contemporary literature at Oakland University, Gilson, who has lived in metro Detroit for eight years, has certainly spun an intriguing tale. New Light centers on three characters: Beth, Houdini and the Mother. We meet Beth at a vulnerable moment in her young adult life: She's just left New York after three empty years of waitressing and drinking. A week after her arrival in St. Louis, she attends a party, where she experiences a terrifyingly beautiful vision of feeling the stars on her body, of her skin "expanding outward like the thin rubber sides of a balloon." On this same night, she ever-so-coincidentally meets a strangely seductive neuroscientist known as Houdini. He is about to visit the nearby rural commune of New Light — a community whose 71 members call themselves Visionaries.

Soon enough, Beth is accompanying Houdini on his research trip to New Light, despite warnings from her friends. During their first meeting with the Mother (who is, in my opinion, the most charismatic of the characters), she explains to the visitors: "The visions show us who we are. ... We have chosen to live apart in an effort to transcend the blindness of the earthly plane." Throughout the novel, Beth wrestles between her intense attraction to the Mother and her intense repulsion — and downright fear — at the power this enigmatic lady wields.

Gilson, who grew up in Denville, N.J., now lives in Rochester with her husband. In her twenties, she lived in Portugal, Morocco and New York City, and her knowledge and interest in New Light's subject matter stems, to a great extent, from her past acquaintances with commune members and from her "hippie-like" friends and family who were immersed "in the new-age realm; who did some pretty weird stuff." Her research for the novel also included visiting the real-life alternative community of East Wind, located in southern Missouri.

In a recent article in St. Louis' West End Word, Gilson says she "had a kind of visionary moment" of her own while driving through the Midwest on her way to attend grad school at Washington University in that city.

This moment, she explains, was the inspiration behind New Light. Of course, I had to press Gilson further — asking her: "Yeah, but was it a real vision?" Laughing a bit mischievously, she replies, "The most I will say is that it was like a vision of a woman having a vision. The moment I had was definitely ... otherworldly."

As well as its compelling plot and believable dialogue, New Light offers a thought-provoking riot of tidbits on history, science, sociology, religion and philosophy. New Light also stands within the American line of utopian-experiment fiction, which includes Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance and T.C. Boyle's Drop City.

Despite the intense subject matter, though, New Light is a fairly quick, fun read. According to Gilson, one of her main goals for the novel was "to write it so that it would be enjoyed by a wide audience; so that someone who doesn't have a Ph.D. would want to read it." In order to do this, she adopts a balanced style: The novel has brisk, to-the-point sentences, as well as long, meticulously crafted lyrical sections. Her love of poetry is clear, for example, in the conclusion of one chapter:

A promise had been made to me, there in the obscurity. It was wordless and undefined and belonged to that before-daylight place, when the world had not yet been assigned its shapes, before light banished the shadows into forms of rock and tree and hand, thereby sentencing the world to beautiful limitation.

After some intense twists and turns (the plot covers approximately a week in Beth's life, and includes a vision ceremony, a fire ceremony, a steamy sex scene, a kidnapping, a shooting and a rebellion against the Mother), the end comes — an ending which shuns the all-too-often-used shiny red ribbon. We are left, in the end, with questions. What is desire? Loyalty? Attraction? Awareness?

In the end, we are left with another beginning.

Meanwhile Gilson is excitedly working on the last revisions of her second novel, A Book of Mirrors, set in New York and, to a lesser extent, Detroit.

Heather A. McMacken is a freelance writer. Send comments to letters@metrotimes.com.

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