I emailed author Sarah Porter a few days ago, just to let her know how much I loved the book– but also to get some clarification on a scene that I didn’t fully understand.
During the events of Vassa, we find that these creatures like Erg and Babs have some sort of a magical gag that disallows them to give our protagonist information regarding the “otherness” that inhabits the world alongside humans. The magical gag doesn’t kill, but it might as well: any being that disobeys these rules loses their inherent magic. Vassa’s initial plan is to get Babs talking, thereby taking away her power, but also because she doesn’t want to kill the old woman. She still feels some pity for her and has some conviction that Babs is a good person, corrupted by magic. She starts to get Babs talking, but then, right when it looks like Babs is going to lose her powers forever, but live– a swan chomps her tongue off. She goes tumbling out of the BY and splatters all over the concrete some thirty feet below.
Unfortunately, Vassa has one last question that needs to be answered: how does she open the Night Rider’s eyes? Erg, who has already broken her oath twice in the past few chapters, reluctantly explains the whole situation to Vassa, but insists that there is something that Vassa needs to do first.
This is where we get the painting scene. It’s a new chapter, with Vassa, at age eighteen or nineteen or however old she is in present time, posing for her mother, Zinaida. She’s painting the picture that we saw earlier, in Babs’s apartment: a young girl holding a gun to her mouth, with white roses lying behind her. The roses are supposed to be red, she recalls, in current time. And they will be. Once she shoots herself, her blood with wash them in red.
Vassa, in this scene, is made of paint. She doesn’t have flesh and muscles and bones– she’s just pigment. But over the course of the chapter, which involves a lot of self-reflection and I think, realization that she wants to live, she slowly tears herself out of her painted world and drops the gun, then makes her way over to Zinaida and puts her hand on the brush. Zinaida says something about how the painting isn’t finished, silly girl– you have to get back to posing.
“No,” Vassa says. “It’s done.”
Or something like that. I don’t have the book with me. :’-)
I interpreted this scene to mean that Vassa was, and has always been, a painting. Like she was a magical creature herself, paint that had turned human, and she had false memories of her entire childhood. That would certainly make sense. She didn’t have a conventional childhood, what with her father abandoning their family to become a dog and all. I figured that maybe Zinaida had carved Vassa into the world solely for this purpose of bringing down Babs and the BY stores, and I asked Ms. Porter about this. My interpretation wasn’t true, but the true meaning behind the chapter, I think, is so much better. The following passage is her reply to me:
“I’m intrigued by your interpretation of the painting–it hadn’t actually occurred to me that it could be read that way, but I see where you’re coming from! No, Vassa is human. But, you know, she has an extremely self-destructive, borderline-suicidal, personality, that comes from her grief over her mother, and from their difficult relationship while Zinaida was alive. She wouldn’t go into BY’s in the first place if there wasn’t part of her that wants to die. So it’s in that the sense that Vassa is trapped in the painting; basically, since it was painted, she’s been ambivalent about her own life, figuratively holding a gun in her own mouth. So freeing herself from the painting is the moment where she truly decides to live. That’s why this is the last thing Erg needs her to do.”
So what we see isn’t a literal metamorphosis from painting to human, but a shift from passively to actively living. It ties the whole story together.
I didn’t know if anyone else had trouble interpreting that scene but here you go! I really love the whole idea behind it, though the execution of the chapter was maybe a little confusing. Still, it acts as a transition between Vassa and her battle to the death with Babs Yaggs and BY, to Vassa and her battle for life, accompanied by Tomin and Chelsea but unfortunately, save Erg– who is released from her magical bond after giving Vassa the third answer.
Um, I’m not sure how to wrap this up. Happy reading!