The Jaguar Man
Central Recovery Press, 2016
[Editor’s note: Lara Naughton will read with Justin Nobel at Antenna (3718 St. Claude Avenue) at 7 p.m. on Thursday, October 27, 2016.]
In short, Lara Naughton’s The Jaguar Man is a book about X.
X is a seasoned traveler’s harrowing experience in a Belizean jungle.
X is how the story of X is told. X is a series of negotiations, internal and external.
X is X.
In this memoir, Naughton reconstructs her experience in Central America, her transition back home with friends after that experience, and her path toward the ultimate revelation that there is space for compassion even in our most painful moments. What makes The Jaguar Man compelling is not only its story but the way in which Naughton reveals that story in fragments, riddles, myths, and at varying distances, all the while resisting the narrative urge to define X and forgo the expansive journey that this experience precipitated.
The story begins in medias res as we meet the jaguar man: “He’s a talker, the angry man, talks the whole time. Talks as he picks me up in his pretend cab, […] talks as he extends his hand with a knife.” The narrator has come to Belize to fall in love with a diver, her heart “wide open to whatever [she’s] about to find.” What she finds, though, is an experience that asks her to interrogate her understanding of love.
In a brief moment, the narrator’s whole life changes, and things aren’t as they appear. In a cab on her way to meet the driver, “Taxi driver becomes abductor. Paradise becomes nightmare.” Amid the retelling of the narrator’s sexual trauma at the jaguar man’s hands, Naughton’s right-branching sentences drive the story forward and lend a syntactical simplicity to the storytelling. The reader doesn’t have to hold onto introductory clauses before knowing just which character will act and what they will do. Intertwined with lyrical descriptions of the Belizean jungle, these straightforward sentences ask the reader to hold her breath, to remain open-eyed, unflinching, as each moment passes.
The narrator tells us that she will see the diver again, but “by the time she see[s] him again: X. X will mean many things.” She’s not interested in giving a name to this experience, to this feeling, to this X. After all, “the story of X isn’t about X.” Perhaps naming X would give it more power than it deserves. Perhaps this isn’t about power at all.
The Jaguar Man resists concentrating on this single event and its details. The book’s focus, instead, falls on the narrator’s reaction and response to the experience. “It’s strange,” the narrator says, “there’s no injury that will scar.” The reader is asked to reckon with the symptoms of trauma — psychological, verbal, and physical — as the narrative shifts into the second person point of view at times. In these moments, the narrator detaches both from a part of herself and from the reader she’s held so near: “As he presses his muscles against yours, you’re here and there. You and her. Far and near. One part of you watches. One part takes the hit.”
This fractured sense of self underlies much of the memoir, but Naughton works to push beyond “detached abstracts,” explaining further, “The emotional body has its own way of taking care of itself. It’s engineered to withstand mounting pressure but push it past its limit–there are limits–and its circuits short.” The Jaguar Man’s strengths are these unflinching moments of introspection wherein the narrator reconsiders the ways in which humans reckon with trauma. Here, the reader begins to witness the reshaping of the narrator’s sense of self and her understanding of X:
Experts say X is about power. I think of the jaguar man, and the statement seems incomplete. Power to do what? Connect? Get his son? Soothe his rage? Belong where he feels cut off? Force himself in?
Interrogations like this are present throughout the book, reiterating the narrator’s resistance to subscribe to platitudes. She pushes back against conventional wisdom in an effort to reach her own conclusions about X. However, this does not mean that her journey toward her own truth is without many abrupt turns. Along the way, Naughton redecorates and renovates her Los Angeles home, reconsiders her Catholic upbringing, visits a psychologist who specializes in trauma, and meets with a progressive church pastor.
In the story’s telling, there are many revisions. After all, as Naughton points out, “Memories are tired tricksters.” While recounting her time in Belize, the narrator finds herself reconsidering her understanding of love:
For one hour, two hours, three hours at the edge of the sea, words shift. The story shifts. You shift forever. Your new reality is announced. You love this man you hate the best you can so he softens enough to let you live.
Undergoing such an experience inextricably binds two individuals, Naughton finds:
You and the jaguar man, horrible as it is, are in it together.
This means X.
X means two strangers shouting for help in private ways.
You want X to be over but you don’t want him to die. You want him to heal.
Naughton offers structured shifts in the narrative that create and dispel tension through the inclusion of myths, facts, souvenir snapshots, questions, truths, and anecdotal lessons about diving from the narrator’s beloved. These brief interruptions provide moments of sharp focus amid the revisionary nonlinear tale of revelation: “FACT. Watching something happen changes the way it happens. The more you observe, the greater the effect.” These facts also create the underpinnings for symbolic resonances throughout the book.
The narrator’s ultimate revelation is that “[t]he compassion, the unbearable love [the jaguar man] needs right now, can only come through [her].” The difficulty the narrator has in restating this realization mirrors the hesitation present in the final two lines of Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” (“the art of losing’s not too hard to master / though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster”), leaving the reader face-to-face with the narrator’s vulnerability as these thoughts are laid bare:
If I understand him, I might understand X. If I understand X, I might understand the nature of compassion. Compassion for the jaguar man saved my life, stilled his pounding, lowered his knife. Compassion rearranged my landscape, and his, like patterns in beads and broken glass. If I understand compassion, I might understand how getting caught in his pain could actually grow me in ways that I (say it) will appreciate.
The Jaguar Man isn’t a story about solving for X, though it’s our every instinct as readers to puzzle a meaning from the mysterious letter. We know the narrative’s whole course from page one. The trauma is predictable, as the narrator points out, and we know Naughton has survived to tell and retell the story. While the narrator and her storytelling become fractured in the process, the memoir artfully chronicles this journey toward a renewed wholeness, toward the narrator’s acceptance of X:
X means compassion (for you and her).
For all the things I’ve done well, and all the things I haven’t.
X means love.
So big I have to change my life to comprehend it.