The Descent of Alette by Alice Notley

A strange thing happened to me yesterday while I was finishing The Descent of Alette: I fell asleep. To be fair the carbon monoxide detector had gone off with it’s out-of-battery warning very late the night before, and I have a hard time falling asleep so getting interrupted set me back an hour or two. And it’s been surprisingly cold so I had the heat cranked up and was lying on my bed in front of the space heater where it was warm. But I wasn’t particularly tired when I sat down to finish it, and didn’t feel particularly rested from the half-hour nap when I woke up to actually finish it. I think it was largely to do with the hypnotic effect of those rhythmic units, demarcated by quotation marks.

The book is divided into four books, each of which describe narratively a stage of a journey. In the first book we join our narrator in the subway/underworld, reminiscent of Dante’s purgatory or that episode of Dr. Who where everyone is trapped in a tunnel driving around eternally. I absolutely loved the first book – the mythopoetic language, the eerie, atmospheric terror of it, the obviously signified Tyrant (representing war, logic, masculinity, & capitalism, a sort of Orwellian figure of oppression).  Like Odysseus in the underworld there are many voices, at first all longing to ascend. There are many small tragedies, but they are dulled beneath the weight of the larger communal tragedy of being trapped by a system that repeats its oppression.

“…” “There are animals” “in the subway” “But they”
“are mute & sad” …


The struggle to escape, to ascend to the naturally-lit world above consumes some, who are forced to sell everything, not just the things of value, to the Tyrant to escape. “he wants your things,” “your small things,” (5) Even then, no one is permitted to leave. Gradually it becomes clear that the very idea of ascension toward the light is false:

“…” “That’s when I knew,’ she said,” “light
meant lie” “That’s when I knew that” “the light” “was a lie,”
“& that” “I would never” “seek light” “I will never” “seek light,'”


This was the part of the work that I was most engaged with – the surreal horror of the subway world, the details of individual people, a glowing woman and her baby, a subway car full of animals in suits, a subway car of disappearing walls and floor that becomes its own skeleton, a subway car of silent sleepers, each one surprising and astonishingly described. Here is where the effect of the broken, breathy lines really suits the world it’s building, where the strangeness of the rhythms serves the content.

In the second book, and after, the narrator descends into a world of symbols, the human psyche we are told several times, a network of caves in which she experiences a series of dreams that aren’t exactly revelatory, but are somewhat anticipatable given what we know of the story. There are false mother figures crowned as queens, a recurring snake (also female), the male tyrant (now lower-case) appearing in various guises, a lot of holes and depths and tunnels (vaginas) that are entered. A lot of entering of bodies both living and dead. This part felt less interestingly imagined to me, for one: the symbols began to feel expected and uninteresting, each encounter redundant to the previous ones. It lost a lot of momentum, and the novelness of the lines had worn off, so that reading what seemed like often matter-of-fact flat prose lines broken up into breath units and versified didn’t actually make the language more engaging.

In the end Alette re-ascends, fights and slays the tyrant with her newly-acquired (male) owl-powers. We know she will succeed at this from the beginning, so the telling of it risks that same expectedness, and doesn’t wholly pull itself out of it. It’s inevitability seems to be driving the story more than anything else.

And the inevitability is actually my major problem with books 2, 3, and 4. Because it gives us a narrator, who is going to liberate women/femininity/Our Mother from the depths of history and oppression and slay the tyrant freeing everyone from the cycle of masculine death and war, but she herself has almost no agency in this journey. She is led through the caves by a voice, or by the opening of doors and passageways, but given no real choice, and therefore no agency. Even getting on the train that takes her down into the deep depths happens almost without her willingness. She gets on the train, and decides not to get off – her only active decision is one of absolute passivity: allowing the things to happen to her. Maybe this is invoking a kind of feminine power and knowledge that in a traditional dichotomy places intuition and receptivity as feminine strengths equivalent to masculine logos/rational knowledge and active intervention. It’s something to consider. But her utter passivity (not even controlling her own sleeping and waking, her own body) works against the sense I had of this being a feminist epic.

Still there are some really startling moments, beautiful language, and interesting rhythms here. I don’t know that it sustains itself across four books and nearly 200 pages driven by a plot that seems a little cliché, but despite these conceptual problems, this an immense, magical work. I would read it again, I would study it further, and I would probably teach it – these sorts of questions about plot would be really interesting to discuss through the lens of feminist literary theory. And to get to lines like these, it’s all worth it:

“All the trapped light” “of creatures” “seemed so dirty” “& scuffed,” (112).

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