Throughout most of our lives, we can ignore our fears about the threat of non-existence that yawns beyond the casket with as much reality as the non-existence out of which we came into our cradles. But when facing death, our own or that of a loved one, we feel compelled to review the idea of after life. Believers ratchet up their beliefs and atheists, like Hal in Jim Snowden’s Dismantle the Sun (Booktrope, 324 pages), hang tough.
According to conventional wisdom, atheists are imaginary creatures. No one (except other atheists) believes they exist, certainly not in the foxhole of impending death. This is why deathbed conversions are expected, even in the most “literary” of end-of-life novels, despite the fact that one of the accepted roles of a literary fiction author is to question how we make sense of our lives. If most novels have the same after-life-affirming answer, I wonder if these novelists are really asking themselves the question, or merely posing it rhetorically for the sake of a denouement. Every deathbed conversion, it seems to me, is another failure to actually question the meaning of life.
Snowden’s courageous refusal to backslide into belief for the sake of an emotionally “satisfying” ending makes him a strong contender for this year’s Dactyl Foundation Award for Literary Fiction (nominated by Paul Xylinides, see review). If the award were given for lack of sentimentality alone, Snowden would win, hands down. The novel is about Hal Nickerson, a high school teacher in Michigan, whose wife Jodie is dying of cancer in the dead of a Great Lake winter. Defending his individuality, Hal largely resents others who try to console him with their own death stories: how accurate was it for them to mix their “pain with Hal’s, as if they and the rest of humanity were manufacturing some sort of agony hash? Surely every death had its own, flavor, its own texture and temperature.”
The couple is indeed unconventional with regard to religion and, without much social support, they have to find their own way of dealing with Jodie’s death. They are both highly intelligent, very well educated people, whose lives are informed by what they have read, from Nabokov to Nietzsche; from morning to night, the couple is literary to the core; they use literature to think through decisions and develop their identities. Jodie favors Lawrence, Beckett and Camus; Hal, Woolf, Darwin and Dennett. After a seeing a car accident, in which two young people die, Hal muses:
Virginia Woolf pegged it when she said that living one day in the world is very dangerous, hadn’t she? All those little chances conspired to shorten our short space of light between to dark infinities. They’d almost gotten everyone millions of times (including many that they weren’t aware of), would get everyone sooner or later, and were getting Jodie. Now he no more feared the black gap in the future than he did the one that occupied all of history up to the moment of his birth. It was the uncertainty—which little cell, or little clot, which car or which patch of ice, would do him in—that kept him awake.
Hal has stood by Jodie’s sickbed for years. She correctly senses that he is becoming tired of waiting for the inevitable, and she pushes Hal onto her friend Hilary. After experimenting with Jodie’s prescribed therapy, Hal ends the affair, mentioning to Hilary, “I think you were supposed to be Mellors to my Lady Chatterley.”
It’s complex; they make mistakes, but Jodie and Hal love and respect each other. They are very similar, perhaps because Jodie has been Hal’s tutor. They are both truthful to a fault, when lying would be kinder and less selfish. Jodie is more social than Hal who, he realizes, other people tend to consider (unfairly perhaps) “condescending” and “mean-spririted.” Hal is quite cynical.
The young people Hal taught reenacted his contemporaries’ crimes with a precision that seemed scripted, just as they would someday reproduce the crimes Hal and his friends would commit as adults. Of course, everyone who aged noticed this sad state of affairs, but teachers had their faces rubbed in it eight hours per day. Their profession required bearing witness to humanity’s tragically limited vocabulary.
It is the literary fiction author, among other artists and thinkers, who must strive to extend humanity’s vocabulary. Snowden is partly successful here (no small feat). He is a poetic writer, showing his gift quite a bit more in Part One of the two-part novel. In the passage below, he sets the scene, describing Jodie and Nick as owners of an ugly modern house in Menominee Falls — a “battlefield in the culture wars” between “educated wine-and-microbrew drinking” Democrats and “star-spangled” Republicans.
A half-mile of second growth woods and underbrush defended Hal from the company of his closest neighbor—a solitude especially welcome now. Tree stands and fields and fences and signs promoting lost children and political candidates lined the highway that linked the house to the world.
These two quietly beautiful sentences resonate with themes later developed. Snowden’s use of “defended” above is an elegant and ironically funny way of describing a man who likes his privacy to the point of being a little anti-social: like his house, he just doesn’t fit in. Delivered in limited-third person, the observation is more critical of Hal than it would be were the story told in the self-conscious first person. Indeed Hal’s great flaw, dominating Part Two, is a blind selfishness out of sorts with the more thoughtful and philosophical man of Part One. In Part Two, as his wife enters the final stages of death, he beds his seventeen-year-old math student Ruth, a student who is clearly in danger of being deeply traumatized by the affair. She is named “Ruth” for sorrow, as with Nabokov’s “Dolores,” a.k.a Lolita.
Although it may seem that the above “lost children and political candidates” are just part of the miscellany of the scenery list, retrospectively the reader will see a much greater significance in the Popian yoking of the two groups. Signs “promoting” lost children seems an especially sad thing to say and it’s a bit odd to equate them with (probably Republican and probably dishonest, if we share Hal’s cynicism) politicians, but we will find that in Hal’s mind somehow these tragedies stem from the same root cause. Ruth, it turns out, is a lost child in a way. She is the daughter of a conservative Republican and evangelical preacher (much like Hal’s own father). As a child, she was horribly sexually abused by her uncle, and in elementary school, after she accused her lesbian gym teacher of molesting her, the woman hanged herself. At seventeen she is caught under the bleachers with a boy in school, Nick Halverson, an obvious Nabokovian doppelganger of Hal Nickerson, whose existence, the reader can assume, allows Hal, unconsciously, to give himself permission to consider her sexually available to him.
Politics figure large in the narrative. Although Ruth’s fragile disposition does not give Hal the slightest pause, her Republic political orientation and her belief in creationism, when these issues come up in conversation, almost cause Hal to lose interest in her sexually. (The novel caricatures Ruth’s people as stupid, sinful, hypocritical, uncharitable charlatans who believe in demons and have witnessed Satanic rituals.) Only after she starts reading On the Origin of Species does Hal renew his interest and continue to pursue her. Hal does not consider her personal history that is undoubtedly tearing the poor girl apart. Instead he thinks only about the practical matter of finding a place to “do it.” They decide on the bedroom above her father’s garage, and, of course, one of the worse possible scenarios ensues.
Hal’s discomfort with Ruth’s political and religious beliefs is in the forefront of his mind while concern about her emotional and physical well being is completely absent. His lack of empathy for the girl could be comical and pathetic, as it is with Humbert, but Snowden misses the opportunity to portray this.
To give Snowden credit, it may be that he wants the reader to guess that Hal is blinded by his vision of Ruth as his earlier self. Hal, too, had a hard childhood, raised by an unfaithful evangelical father and a broken-hearted mother who committed suicide. Hal’s main motivation for pursuing Ruth — not some one else, anyone else, for sex and physical comfort — seems to be the need to rescue his own childhood self by “rescuing” the girl. He sees himself playing the part that Jodie had played for him, replacing his Christianity with Darwinism. But Ruth is not Hal, and Hal is not Jodie. Ruth is thirty-two-year-old Hal’s seventeen-year-old student. The whole “affair” is described without showing Hal suffering anguish over what he is doing to the girl and without Snowden, as narrator, calling much if any attention to this fault.
Snowden leaves it up to the reader to see and feel the end coming, as obvious on the horizon as in any melodrama. Teacher and student, caught in the act, end up getting sprayed with the blood and brain matter of the girl’s jealous and remorseful uncle. Hal, as intelligent and self-critical as he is in Part One, should have imagined something like this happening, and yet we don’t get to see how he makes the excuses to himself that enable him to sneak up the steps to that bedroom above the garage.
Snowden might have learned more from the thrice-evoked Nabokov, who In Lolita shows us how effective manipulative lover’s complaint pastoral rhetoric can be for eliciting empathy, even for a Cyclopsian monster like Humbert Humbert, but at the same time, Nabokov never lets us forget that Humbert is a monster. He shows us the perversity of his “love” so that we can comprehend it fully. I felt no empathy for the Hal of Part Two, although I felt a great deal for him during Part One, even as he and Jodie hurt one another, even as he expressed contempt for people who tried to console him. It’s not that I didn’t like reading about the selfish acts or absurd political complacency in Part Two, but I did want to see the mental machinations such that I could understand Hal’s actions and decisions, so that I could really know him, not just reject him for what he does without understanding why.
Part One, which describes an atheist man going through the death of his beloved atheist wife, is poignant, written well with dry humor and stinging wit. It questions the assumptions about belief that most novels tend reaffirm. It represents an exercise in critical thinking that most of humanity seems determined to sit out. Part Two fails to question the assumptions of Progressives that are all too ready, like the other group, to cast our problems in terms of “Us against Them” rhetoric. Indeed Snowden reaffirms the stereotypes that keep us at each other’s throats.
We tend to learn more when we get inside the head of our intellectual and political enemies than we do when we read about perspectives with which we already agree. Snowden does excellent work portraying an atheist in a manner that may make others, even unrelenting Christians, understand atheism better. But he is not able to show us how this damaged son of evangelical TV preacher came to do the things he did to Ruth. In the end, the story of Ruth and Hal is no more enlightening that one of those horrible news items that make it seem as if we live in a world of unrelfective sociopaths. It is the story of Hal and Jodie (who, it turns out, lives) that is worth reading.
–V.N. Alexander, author of Naked Singularity, 2003