The Title, the Epigraph and the Prelude
Somebody gave me a copy of this book (Charles Baxter, The Feast of Love, Random House, 2000. Vintage paperback edition, 2001, 308 pp.). It lay about my house for a long time, the bright blues of the cover occasionally calling out to me, “Read me.” I resisted, probably because the title put me off. “The Feast of Love” promises a light read, maybe a melodrama, nothing serious. The book, however, turns out to be a wonderful piece of literary fiction.
Here’s the epigraph, from Samuel Beckett’s Molloy: “Yes, there were times when I forgot not only who I was, but that I was, forgot to be.” Is the novel that follows about forgetting to be? Not really. This book as a whole is about being, and all the messiness of being human in flesh. That epigraph misleads the reader into thinking he’s in for something resembling Kafka, and the “Preludes” part that comes next—first subheading under “Beginnings”—reinforces that expectation of the Kafkaesque. In the prelude the writer Charles Baxter—most people call him Charlie—wakes up in the middle of the night and “cannot remember or recognize myself . . . I can’t manage my way through this feeling because my mind isn’t working, and because it, the flesh in which I’m housed, hasn’t yet become me.”
Charlie is suffering from “night amnesias,” what his doctor calls “identity lapses.” He is something like what he calls “glimmerless,” akin to the antique mirror in his house that is “so old that it can’t reflect anything anymore.” His wife awakens, tries to comfort him, but soon falls back asleep. “I was seeing spots,” says Charlie, “or more like cogs, wheels with cogs turning.” The business of the cogs returns later, near the end of the novel, and there is a suggestion that what the meshing of gears and cogs represents is the way a fiction is put together. Charlie has a story—actually a novel, this one—gearing up in his subconscious.
Charlie Baxter goes out to walk the night streets of his city, Ann Arbor, close to the university. “I glide past the nonmirroring mirror.” Things outside, at first, are still bizarre. The moon, who has a baritone voice, is “belting out show tunes.” No. That’s somebody’s radio. Next he walks into what is a shower of frass (insect excrement). The caterpillars of the gypsy moth are devouring the leaves on maple trees and defecating masses of droplets.
Charlie ambles into the empty cavernous stadium at the University of Michigan and sits in the stands. There he spies a young man and woman, a naked couple on the fifty-yard line. It’s 1:45 a.m. and he feels he is in the middle of a midsummer night’s dream, the dream of an insomniac. Leaving the stadium, Charlie walks into a park nearby. There he spots one of his neighbors with a dog, a fellow insomniac sitting on a bench. This is Bradley W. Smith, a man who resembles “an exceptionally handsome toad.” Why name a central character of a novel “Smith”? Why not? Smiths, who are all over the place, have been ill served by writers of fiction, who shun the commonplace names and look for more original cognomens for their characters.
Charlie sits down with Bradley and they start a conversation—by now we have moved into Chapter One of the novel, and, unbeknown to us, we have already met four of the main characters (not counting Charlie). One is Bradley Smith, another is his dog, also named Bradley, and the other two are the fornicating couple in the stadium. In the conversation on the bench Bradley and Charlie discuss their respective insomnias. Charlie confesses to “thinking about a book,” even tells Bradley the tentative first line of the novel, the same one used in the prelude: “The man, me—no one else, it seems—wakes in fright.”
Though no writer himself, Bradley feels free to criticize that beginning: “I thought it was a cardinal rule not to start a novel with someone waking up in bed.” He goes on to suggest a title: “You should call it The Feast of Love. I’m the expert on that. I should write that book. Actually, I should be in that book. You should put me into your novel. I’m an expert on love. I’ve just broken up with my second wife, after all. I’m in an emotional tangle. Maybe I’d shoot myself before the final chapter.” Here in the first chapter we learn (from Bradley) about other central characters who show up later: Bradley’s two wives, Kathryn, “a lesbian, sort of,” and Diana, “nearly a goddess,” “who loved someone else before I married her [David] and she loved him while I was married to her, and she loves him now.”
So it goes. The writer meets one of his characters. That character gives him the title for his book, then suggests helping him write it. He, Bradley, can tell his own story; he also can recruit others with interesting stories to tell them for Charlie. “I’ll send you people . . . everybody’s got a story, and we’ll just start telling you the stories we have.” Charlie says it won’t work. “I’d have to fictionalize you. I’d have to fictionalize this dog here.” And for the whole rest of the book that’s exactly what happens. In Chapter Two Bradley Smith goes on to tell the story of his first failed marriage, but we have been informed that this is not the “real” Bradley W. Smith—this is what “Charlie” has made out of the “real” Bradley. Why did I put the name “Charlie” in quotation marks there? Because he is not, we presume, the real Charles Baxter who lives in Ann Arbor and published this book; he is a front-man narrator that the “real” Charles Baxter invents to help him write his novel. Complicated. But not that uncommon these days. Such doings have become more and more a part of American fiction for the past sixty-five years. Ever since Vladimir Nabokov used a flawed narrator named “Vladimir Nabokov” to tell us the story and be a character in Pnin (published in 1957).
So go the workings of a book of fiction: it looks real, but it’s not really real, or, to take another point of view: it’s even more real than reality. That is a claim that the best fiction written can make: more real than the real. Tolstoy has done that. Read Anna Karenina and you can’t believe that brother Stiva in the novel never existed. Stiva has transcended his lack of flesh and become the epitome of what a man in the flesh is like. So too does Charles Baxter draw rounded characters—and this is my highest possible compliment—who, like Tolstoy’s, are more real than the real. He has already begun delineating those characters in his tour de force beginning of this book: the waking frightened, the insomniacal walk, the conversation with Bradley, who, in effect, starts writing the story for him.
Only upon a second reading of the prelude and first chapter do we realize how well this novel has been put together. The scene with Bradley, we find out later, comes at a point well into the subsequent action of the book, after Diana, his second wife has left him, but also after he has met another woman, Margaret, who could well become his third wife. Furthermore, details in “Preludes” anticipate important things that are to happen much later. After Charlie spots the copulating couple on the fifty-yard line at the stadium, he remarks in passing on the bustle surrounding that stadium on important game days.
He leaves the stadium and walks toward Allmendinger Park. The couple turn out to be Oscar and Chloé, main characters, and the most dreadful day in their life is foreshadowed here. The day when Oscar, playing touch football in Allmendinger Park, drops dead of a heart attack. This, the climactic scene in the whole book, brings together most of the main characters, who try in vain to get Oscar to a hospital—because it is the day of the big game between Michigan and Ohio State, and postgame traffic snarls the streets.
Why do I give away important scenes without providing a “spoiler alert”? Because in my book reviews I do not provide “spoiler alerts.” My reviews are for people who have already read the book and are looking for an interesting take on it. And for people—very few, precious few—who have the time and stamina and inclination to read a long, long comprehensive review.
Love Stories: Bradley and Kathryn, Kathryn and Jenny
The Feast of Love is a novel that looks at all kinds of love, but especially romantic love. It recalls earlier efforts at treating this complex theme in literature, for example, Raymond Carver’s wonderful story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and its original source: Chekhov’s “About Love,” which is the third and final story in his “Little Trilogy.” Here’s the big question of the whole book: What is love? The answer is that love—an extremely complex and often perverse business—is all different sorts of things. Another issue is this: do people really have any idea why they fall in love and why they marry someone? The answer in this novel is, “Frequently not.” In the case of Bradley’s two wives, neither of them knows exactly why she married him, and each discovers, soon, that the marriage was a mistake.
In Chapter Two Bradley narrates his version of his marriage to Kathryn. He concentrates on “the one really good day” in that marriage, “the day we had an angel around.” They had been married less than two months on that one good day. Bradley describes a kind of epiphany: their visit together to the dog pound. There Kathryn, who is afraid of dogs, not only manages to overcome her fears, but somehow communes with the barking dogs. She speaks gently to them, makes them stop barking, and then she gives names to each of the orphans. Among the named is Bradley the dog, who, apparently, looks something like a toad (although nowhere is he described as such). We have learned earlier that Kathryn has noticed Bradley her husband’s resemblance to a toad, even calls him “Toadie.” An ominous detail.
Back home from the dog pound, exhilarated by the miracle of the dog-taming-naming and the joy of his lovely marriage, Bradley contemplates the years of happiness awaiting him and his wife together. They watch the snow come down. “‘This is our first snow,’ I said aloud, thinking that we would have many more years of seeing it together, that we would stand in front of windows year after year, watching the first snow, the two of us, watching the wind swirl it, then watching the spring storms, watching the snow melting and the water rushing down into the storm drains. From now and then onward into forever this would happen. We would watch our children playing in the melting snow, splashing in the puddles. After we died, we would still be seeing everything together, Kathryn and me, into eternity, I thought. Death would be a trivial event as long as I loved her.” Endless love. The great dream (delusion) of humanity, as embodied in countless pop and country music tunes: “Even Death won’t tear us apart.”
Bradley W. Smith goes back to the dog pound and adopts the dog named Bradley. He farms Bradley out to his sister for the time being, hoping to bring him home when Kathryn overcomes her fear of dogs. Four weeks after this “one good day” Kathryn leaves Bradley for another woman.
Next Charlie the narrator approaches Kathryn for her side of the story. She resists at first, not liking the idea of having herself made into a fictional character. But becoming “a literary entity” somehow appeals to her, so she finally agrees. She meets with Charlie at Jitters, the coffee shop where Bradley is manager, and they are served by another central character, Chloé. When Kathryn takes over the narration in Chapter Three, we learn that, in her mind, there was no “one good day.”
She denies silencing and then naming the dogs at the pound, so the story of Bradley’s epiphany—quite a nice story, really—is called into question. It’s a made-up story, and made up not once, but at least twice: once by Bradley, and again by Charlie as he fictionalizes Bradley. Complicated. But this book makes the point that not only romantic love is a complicated thing; stories are as well, and figuring out what “really” happened is probably impossible.
Kathryn begins by admitting that she doesn’t like men, never has. Men, in general, are “unlovable.” Not exactly a good candidate for making a successful marriage to a man. How did she “fall in love” with Bradley and why did she marry him? She’s a bit hazy in her own mind on this. So she says, she fell in love with Bradley in high school because he pursued her and drew flattering pictures of her. “But he only loved his love for me and the pictures he was drawing. He loved those two. He loved the feeling he was having. I was a mere accessory to the feeling.”
Then again, Bradley—this man “in love with love”—was constantly spaced out: “he made love the way you would drive a car to work. Autopilot stuff . . . as if he were changing a light bulb.” How poorly we see ourselves through the eyes of others, even those most close to us. Bradley has gone humming through his love for Kathryn, never suspecting that she has such a low opinion of him.
Kathryn discovers she’s a lesbian quite by accident, while playing town-league softball. She hits a line drive, and another woman, Jenny—in what Kathryn depicts as an act of grace—catches her line drive, then smiles at her, and “I felt that smile go down through me and out the other side.” This is a beautifully written scene, in a book teeming with beautiful writing. Given that my book reviews are already way too lengthy, I should resist quoting from such scenes. I cannot; they are so good. Later the softball players drink beer together at a bar, and Kathryn falls head over heels for Jenny. Here’s part of that scene.
“You don’t know that you’ve crossed a border until you’re over on the other side. At that point you see where you’ve got yourself to and whether you’re done for or not. Plenty of friendships have a latent erotic component. But before I had even quite realized that I was attracted to her—well, I knew I was because I wanted to be more like her than I was like myself—the old terrible magic coalesced into the air, and I realized with a sort of shock what I wanted to do. Dear God, I wanted to put my hands on her as a trial, just as a test. I wanted to put a hand on her face or on her arm because I thought that if I did that, I would be so happy. I just wanted to feel her skin and I wanted to get at the soul underneath that muscle because I could smell it. I had never gotten a whiff of Bradley’s soul and at that moment at the table in the King’s Armor I had a flash that I never would. The menu of sensations in this post-softball evening was mostly new to me. But at that table I could smell her soul and I wanted it. She being a woman, et cetera, it was scary. But it was uplifting too.”
The Smell of a Soul. Good title for a novel on romantic love. Although, in essence, it’s as silly as Bradley’s romantic dream about endless love. Love, so often firmly enmeshed with carnal desire, makes us say and do silly things. So much about the conversation of the two women is wonderful, but I’ll resist quoting more here. Suffice it to say that Bradley, who sits stroking his wife’s arm in the bar and humming to himself—while Kathryn sniffs at another woman’s soul—has no clue that his marriage is over. His visions of future happiness—the stuff about the dog pound, quoted above—are to take place after Kathryn has met Jenny; in other words, after the marriage is already dead.
In the following chapter Charlie, the narrative force, meets with Bradley, tells him he has heard Kathryn’s side of the story. He reminds Bradley that the whole idea was his: “having everybody give me stories.” Bradley suggests a young couple who work at his coffee shop—Chloé Barlow and Oscar Metzger—who can provide a “cross section” for his novel. Then he, Bradley, goes on to narrate the story of how he got the dog Bradley back from his sister. Bradley the dog becomes a central character in the book, and all of the next chapter is taken up with the tale of repossessing the dog.
Love Stories: Harry, Esther and Aaron
The new narrator in Chapter Six is philosophy professor, Harry Ginsberg; he and his wife Esther are next-door neighbors of Bradley Smith. We presume that they also know Charlie Baxter, another neighbor, but by this time narrator/author Charlie has withdrawn further into the recesses of the book. He’s letting his characters have a go at telling the story, keeping himself somewhat removed from it.
Harry’s employer is the University of Michigan, whom he consistently refers to as “The Amalgamated Education Corporation.” Charlie apparently works there as well. Invited by Bradley for dinner, Harry ignores the admonishments of his wife, giving Bradley a lecture on Kierkegaard’s two favorite things: God and love: “K’s homage to both was multifarious verbiage. He wrote intricately beautiful semi-nonsense and thus became a hero of the intellectual type.” That’s refreshing. A philosophy prof who is aware that much of philosophy writing is dominated by semi-nonsense. Then again, so is sociology writing, and litcrit writing, and etc., etc., etc. Academia, as we all know, is, in many respects, a farcical institution, and, besides—Harry opines this somewhere else—profs love stabbing their friends in the back.
Part of the lecture for Bradley: “The problem with love and God, the two of them, is how to say anything about them that doesn’t annihilate them instantly with the wrong words, with untruth. In this sense, love and God are equivalents. We feel both, but because we cannot speak clearly about them, we end up—wordless, inarticulate—by denying their existence altogether, and pfffffft, they die. (They can, however, come back. Because God is a god, when He is dead, He doesn’t have to stay dead. He can come back if he chooses to. Nietzsche somehow failed to mention this.)”
Luckily for the reluctant listener, Bradley, and for the reader of this book, Harry soon cuts off his lecture on love and God. We learn much more about love in this novel, but not about God. Perhaps Charles Baxter will return to an exhaustive treatment of that subject in a different book. Another possibility: he could write a sequel to this novel, in which the same characters appear, but this time they complain about how they were fictionalized in The Feast of Love and retell their stories—setting the record straight.
Bradley W. Smith is an artist of sorts, an artsy-fartsy painter of “odd expressionism.” Like much of modern art, “all of his canvases required an explanation or a commentary.” After treating Harry and Esther to dinner—and after listening to Harry’s lecture—Bradley shows them around his paintings. They, of course, are not impressed by the “surrealist trees, growing in a forest of fog and painterly confusion.” But then he pulls out “a different sort of picture—in my former style,” and this one, titled The Feast of Love, “was breath-snatching.” So now it turns out that not only has Bradley W. Smith given Charlie the title for his novel, but he also has done a painting with the same title, a work of art that embodies on canvas the theme of the book. Here is the painting as described by Harry Ginsberg:
“A sunlit table—on which had been set dishes and cups and glasses—appeared to be overflowing with light. The table and the feast had been placed in the foreground, and on all sides the background fell backward into a sort of visible darkness. The eye returned to the table. In the glasses was not wine but light, on the plates were dishes of brightest hues, as if the appetite the guest brought to this feast was an appetite not for food but for the entire spectrum as lit by celestial arc lamps. The food had no shape. It had only color, burning pastels, of the pale but intense variety. Visionary magic flowed from one end of the table to the other, all the suggestions of food having been abstracted into too-bright shapes, as if one had stepped out of a movie theater into a bright afternoon summer downtown where all the objects were so overcrowded with light that the eye couldn’t process any of it. The painting was like a flashbulb, a blinding, cataract art. This food laid out before us was like that. Then I noticed that the front of the table seemed to be tipped toward the viewer, as if all this light, and all this food, and all this love, was about to slide into our laps. The feast of love was the feast of light, and it was about to become ours.”
The enthralled Esther asks where the people are in the painting. Bradley replies that there are none, “because no one’s ever allowed to go there. You can see it but you can’t reach it.” The vision of romantic love that is so all-pervasive in the human soul is, in fact, unattainable. Disillusioned by the failure of his own love dreams, Bradley tells his neighbors that he no longer exhibits this painting, “because it’s not true.” He goes on to say, “If you can’t get there, then it’s not true. He looked up at me and Esther, two old people holding hands in our neighbor’s basement. I’m not a fool, he said. I don’t spend my time painting foolish dreams and fantasies. Once was enough.”
Of course, the image of the old couple holding hands gives the lie, at least in part, to the refutation of the romantic dream. The same thing happens in the Raymond Carver story mentioned above. Harry and Esther are the only happily married older couple in the book—not counting Charlie and his wife, who is little more than a ghostly presence appearing in two brief scenes. But Harry and Esther are also the characters most laid low by a different sort of love, their love for their son Aaron, who is mentally ill.
After the scene in which they view The Feast of Love, a painting that, says Esther, “anyone would remember for the rest of their lives,” they return home, and, in the dead of the night comes a phone call from their disturbed son. Here we have the theme of love as a form of hatred: Aaron exudes nothing but hatred for his loving parents. As Harry writes, “To have a son or daughter like this is to have a portion of the spirit shrivel and die, never to recover.” Later on in the novel, Harry gets the courage to put hateful Aaron in his place over the phone. After this he “entrusts his life and his soul to God . . ., placing my son in His hands, this God in whom I do not believe.”
Still later Aaron vanishes altogether. His parents can find no trace of him and are left to suffer on in silence, wondering if he is dead or alive. Of all the suffering described in the book, theirs is the worst. This idea of love and hate inextricably mixed will return with the appearance of Bradley’s second wife, Diana.
Love Stories: Chloé and Oscar
Chapter Five introduces a young woman, Chloé Barlow, as narrator. She works in Bradley’s coffee shop, Jitters, along with her lover, Oscar Metzger. Among the things that contribute mightily to the charm of this novel is its humor, and Chloé as narrator is often funny. She is what they call “aloft on the wings of love” for her Oscar: “To be more romantic than we were [she and Oscar], you’d have to kill yourself in the middle of the street and then write about it. Shakespeare did that.”
Another figure of fun—but also of considerable menace—is Oscar’s father, a diminutive underclass creature who “dynamited tree stumps for a living, then hauled them away.” His first name, supposedly, is Batholdt (he calls himself Mac), but everyone refers to him as “The Bat.”
Chloé and Oscar are heavy metal/punk types, heavily pierced but largely uneducated, with not much to promise in their future but low-paying jobs and hourly wages. They are, however, as Bradley notes, “just a couple of kids.” Charles Baxter, the author, is a master at drawing rounded, believable characters, and the parts of the book narrated by Chloé bring her alive. She and Oscar strive vainly to make their way financially in life, including a hilarious attempt at “getting into show business”—having a friend film them making love and trying to sell the film to the porno industry. Later they agree to letting a man watch them in the act, in return for money.
Various foreshadowing suggests that their ideal young love is not long for this world. At one point Chloé visits a psychic in Ypsilanti, Mrs. Maggaroulian—another hilarious scene. The psychic kindly restrains herself from reporting exactly what she sees in Oscar’s future: an early death from heart problems. Chloé, however, gets the message and decides she should marry Oscar while there still is time. Their employer, Bradley, offers his back yard for their wedding reception. Chloé dances with Harry Ginsberg and brings up a philosophical issue: “Why, she asked, did love—by which she appeared to mean sexual love—attract so much, her phrase weird badness to it?” She asks this question apropos of “scumbags” and points out “a strange little man staring at us from a distance near the street. Who was he?” The Bat.
Harry’s reply has resonance for the book as a whole. He reports that “the force of eros” is godlike, “and therefore does not have to include morality, being outside of it . . . Eros, I told Chloé, is a devil as well as an angel.” At her wedding reception Chloé has a vision of a scene out of Bradley’s painting, “The Feast of Love,” which, by then, he has put on view at his coffee shop, along with some of his abstract works, including one of Bradley the dog.
“I came out of the house from the bathroom, and I looked at this table, the one Bradley had set for us. The light was shining on it in a certain celestial way, blazing blazing, and for a second the table turned into a bonfire, and so did the food and the wine. The party became, like, incandescent, right in front of my eyes, and I heard voices saying my name, Chloé, like the air was saying it, or God saying it, celebrating me. This table in front of me, the party, was so bright you could be blinded by it. It was just like one of Bradley’s paintings, the one of the table he’d put up in the back of Jitters.” Four months later Oscar dies.
The climax of the book comes in Chapter 23, when many of the main characters come together for a game of touch football on a day that happens also to be a big gameday in Ann Arbor: University of Michigan vs. Ohio State. This is when Oscar’s bad heart gives out while he is in the act of catching a pass. Chloé is involved in her last “feast of love” in the back seat of David’s car, bearing already dead Oscar toward the hospital in the midst of a colossal traffic jam. While she desperately tries mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, inebriated fans in other cars laugh and yuck, perceiving this as passionate love-making. Another great scene in a book teeming with wonderful writing.
After Oscar’s death Chloé, now pregnant, bravely goes on with her life. Some drama enters in an episode describing how the execrable Bat tries to rape her and she finds refuge with Harry and Esther. Still aloft in her romantic dreams, Chloé insists that Oscar is not really dead; he is still out there somewhere, and she hopes to meet him at some point, incarnate, perhaps, in a different man. Of course, given the prevalence of divorce in the U.S. and the fact of how young Oscar and Chloé are at the time of his death, we are left wondering how long their delirious sexual love would have lasted—had Oscar not suffered an early death.
Bradley and Diana: Love as Love-Hate
What is love and who loves whom? In discussing her marriage to Bradley, his first wife Kathryn tells Charlie, “He said that he loved me but I don’t actually think that he did. Or maybe his love just didn’t manage to get into working order with me. By that time [by that time she had met Jenny] I had seen love in its final form.” Doubtful, since one could argue that love, like life, is in constant flux and, therefore, has no final form. The stories in this book are bound by the covers of the book. If we could take a look at Jenny and Kathryn ten or twenty more years on into their lives, we may well discover that this great love of Kathryn’s life had also petered out.
The devil/angel mix in Eros is best embodied in the character of Diana, Bradley’s second wife. Or, rather, the devil side is predominant. On the day that Bradley first meets Diana, the author, “Charlie,” erects along the path toward that meeting a whole series of warning signs. Bradley ignores them all. On his drive to work that day Bradley notices little crosses stuck up by the road “to memorialize sudden vehicular deaths” and comments on the plastic flowers that never wilt, “exuding plastic-flower sorrow.” He notes that “the quality of the grief has a discount aura.” Although he has not yet met Diana, the plastic flowers here commemorate his dead love before it even begins.
At the mall where Bradley manages his coffee shop, Jitters, he notes “the strange bleary artificiality in the air, characteristic of enclosed shopping malls.” That morning at the shop Chloé mentions the ominous weather in prospect—“mucho thunderstorms and mucho kaboom. Sky evil.” She asks Bradley, “What’s the worst thing ever happened to you?” He tells her a long story about how, when he was a tourist in Paris, he once accidentally knocked over a stand of lit votive candles at Notre Dame Cathedral—thereby extinguishing the prayers and hopes of people who had lit the candles.
Plastic crosses commemorating the dead, extinguished hopes in the form of candles, a tremendous booming thunderstorm, a power outage—everything preceding that first encounter with Diana is ominous. Bradley is blissfully unaware that the worst thing ever to happen to him is about to happen momentarily: his meeting this more than vile woman, who shows up at the coffee shop—reading the New York Times in the dim light after the power fails—three pages later. Everything warns him away from this woman—even a brief appearance of The Bat.
Desperately toiling as god of the narrative, Charlie steers him in a different direction, briefly toward another woman, who works in the mall’s maternity store, Motherhood: “Marilyn, a sweet babe, pure honeydew.” Bradley could have dropped in on Marilyn during the power outage, courted her, married her, later bought her maternity dresses and had children with her. But he does not. Bradley is not following the author’s hints, not paying attention to the warnings—Diana’s blue eyes prevail over all the omens.
When Charlie goes to Diana in Chapter Ten and asks for her story—the tale of her marriage to Bradley—she resists. “Listen, Charlie. I suppose this is all very interesting and everything, but it gives me the willies. First of all, my story is not a story. Second of all, it’s not yours. It’s mine, isn’t it? I thought my life was mine and not yours. Third of all, I . . . I just lost my train of thought. Oh, I know: it’s all private. My life is not in the public domain. All right? Please don’t write about me.” Charlie answers that he won’t exactly do that: “I’ll invent a replica of you.” That, of course, is what he is doing with all the characters in the book, fictionalizing them.
The original for Diana is an osteopath, but that profession won’t work for the Diana whom Charlie presents in his novel. Too touchy-feely. He makes Diana into a lawyer; that works well. The original Diana in Chapter Ten never cooperates, but Charlie tells her, “You’ll wish you had talked to me.” Already into her new persona as lawyer, and as grit-hard female, Diana tells him, “Don’t threaten people, especially lawyers. Don’t threaten your own characters. It’s for your own good. You’ll wind up in a mess of litigation and . . . subplots.” Words of advice from a supremely confident character to her creator.
When the invented Diana tells her story she is presented as a despicable character. Okay, so she’s made up, and maybe that’s why she’s so negative. No real human being could be quite this vile, right? Wrong. Like all the other well-rounded characters in this novel, Diana is totally believable as a person. Real human beings, unfortunately, can be as crass and cruel as she is.
In speaking of the pros and cons of illicit love, Diana says, “I have always orchestrated my romances with, well, an icy methodical self-interest.” In reference to Bradley she remarks, “The poor guy. I bet he knew he was overmatched already . . . I was the superior animal and he was in for the time of his life.” Soon after she meets Bradley he proposes marriage and she accepts. “I didn’t need a lover. I already had one of those, a married man” [David]. Then why, for God’s sake, does she agree to marry Bradley? Just because.
The reader is screaming at this point, “Run, Bradley W. Smith, Mr. Nice Guy, run away while you still have the chance.” But Bradley does not run away from this woman, who, tellingly, is the only character in the novel who disparages good ole Bradley the dog: “a special-needs dog . . . cognitively challenged, and a slobberer.”
Diana goes through the reasons in her own mind why she might want to marry Bradley. He’s a decent man, and maybe it’s time for her to experiment in the married life, and she might want to have a baby. Her lover David, correctly, views her decision to marry as “a little prank.” David goes on to call her “a thug.” “You’re mean. This is the joker side of you . . . Honey, you are going to eat him alive.” She soon does. Most importantly, David tells Diana that such a marriage is “a soul-error.” No good can come of this, and she knows it, but she marries Bradley anyway. Deep in her sordid soul some despicable little neuron gleefully contemplates how much fun she’ll have bringing a person to his knees.
Bradley narrates Chapter Fourteen, which makes for difficult reading. His falling in love with Diana is never totally explainable. At one point he says, “I looked forward to her, not to her sweetness, because she didn’t have any of that, but to her acids and spices, the way she made me feel more alive.” As the Marquis de Sade probably understood, a person being tormented sexually probably feels extremely alive. They go on their honeymoon to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where the marriage dies stillborn. Diana smugly tells him, “We’re not compatible, you know . . . I’m loving with my friends and mean to my lovers.” This on the day after their wedding.
On a hike out in the woods they come upon an old lady who sells ugly statuary art that her dead husband produced. They bicker over nothing much and Bradley says, “Something was happening, and I didn’t know what it was.” What it was was the rapid disintegration of the marriage. Against Bradley’s objections (“Shut up, Bradley.”), Diana buys one of the ugly statues, that of a boy reclining on the ground with his head propped in his right hand. Back at the motel, Diana engages him in sexual acts that are the expression not of love, but of a wild, aggressive hatred. Yes, among the many things that love can encompass is hate, and the orgasm is a feral, animal thing that has nothing in common with the ideals of romantic love. Bradley: “I knew that whole night, by then, watching her, that she was in love with someone else, intensely, and had always been, and been tormented by it, and now she was taking it out on me” . . .
Chapter Sixteen is a very short chapter, one page with white spaces on both ends. Here Bradley sums up his marriage to Diana, which, unbeknown to him, was dead before it began. “I’m not saying anything more about it . . . If you want something to read, then read the white space on the rest of this page. That’s me, down there in the white.” So now the character has been through two marriages, both of them stillborn.
Later on Diana narrates, providing her view on “the little marriage experiment with Bradley” that “hadn’t worked out.” On herself: “To be honest, I had this image of myself: I was the tree that a drunk driver slides off the road into. The tree doesn’t move. It doesn’t do anything except stand there. It kills the person just by standing there. That would be me. I’ve got my attitude: lethal neutrality and immobility.” Drunk on love, Bradley smashes his car into Diana the tree.
By the end of the novel she is back with David, who has left his wife for her. He narrates Chapter Twenty, providing a few more insights into Diana and himself. They are married by then, but not likely to stay married. In a later chapter she is given the narration describing Oscar’s death from her point of view. Here she, the most unlikely altruist of all, is engaged in an altruistic, if futile, act: trying to get a dead boy to the hospital.
Diana is one of the most believable, and the saddest character in the whole novel. She loves David in her own perverse way, but their lovemaking is more like making hate, as she herself realizes: “I don’t know if David and I will stay together. Our lovemaking is so stormy and theatrical that we keep tearing into each other, and when we do, we tear holes. Sometimes what we do is more like fighting than love. We slam each other around. I think we’re trying to find each other’s souls, knowing they must be in there somewhere, close to our undernourished hearts. You shouldn’t envy us, sexy as we might appear to be. It’s not sustainable. No one could endure it. This intensity can’t continue forever. But it’s the way we are, hard-assed and mean and a bit selfish . . . dragons shouldn’t be characters in love stories . . . the thing that we create when we’re together is wondrous but certainly not wonderful.”
Were the character Diana to sniff out the pity she generates in a reader of this book, she would reject such an emotion out of hand—with contempt. Here’s her final word on herself: “On some days I’d like to be more like Chloé, who has star quality, but I’m not like her, and I won’t be. I’m bad, because I lack usable tenderness and I don’t have a shred of kindness, but I’m not a villain and never have been. That’s what you should remember about me.”
The central character of the book, Bradley W. Smith, hits a low point after his humiliating marriage to Diana. Bereft and lonely, he deliberately maims himself, cuts off the tip of his little finger. But Bradley, along with Bradley the dog, comes out in the end doing pretty well for himself. At the hospital he meets a woman doctor from Africa, Margaret, and, tellingly, she is among the few characters in the book who fails to notice his resemblance to a toad. That’s a good omen.
“I went to her dripping blood, my heart in tatters over Diana, and she cured me of that in a week.” Bradley goes on to say that “sometimes you just know” when two people belong together. “I had never really experienced that odd happenstance before, but this time, with Margaret, I did.” Bradley closes out his appearances in the book happy: “I’m no longer a story. Happiness has made me fade into real life.” Beyond the back cover of the book, Bradley’s love life looks promising. He’ll soon make Margaret his third wife, but only time will tell after that. The divorce rate in the U.S.A. doesn’t augur well for longevity in any marriage.
As the novel concludes Aaron, the troubled son of Harry and Esther Ginsberg, is still missing, but the couple finds some consolation in a semi-adoption of the pregnant Chloé. Harry is writing a book: “A refutation of the tendentious and mannered arguments concerning Kierkegaard and Wittgenstein in Herbert Quain’s The Labyrinth of the God.” Meanwhile, Chloé takes walks around the neighborhood, sees people on front stoops staring into space. What are they thinking about? “That’s what I’m trying to grasp. I think they’re stupefied, thinking about love, mostly, how they once had it, how they got it, how they lost it, and all the people they loved or didn’t love, how they ended up royally hating somebody, like, the weirdness and wetness of it.”
Chloé finishes off the narration of the book in the final chapter, telling of a vision she once had while high at a party. “I said, ‘Hey, look at that cloud,’ but no one looked up, they were all too out of it to bother. So like I said, it was circular, white and burning, like a fiery merry-go-round, with, if you looked closely enough, people attached. And cogs. You could see them, these people, getting on and off the inflamed cloud wheel in the sky, and they’d be strapped in facing out, and they’d be turning slowly because it turned slowly. It turned slowly like a huge grinding thing, and there were other wheels and gears in the sky, and they were all meshing together.” She asks Harry Ginsberg who saw the burning wheel and Harry tells her it was the prophet Ezekiel in the Old Testament. So Chloé concludes that she is in a tiny club, its only members begin herself and Ezekiel.
After the stories of the characters are done Charlie the author returns in “Postludes,” the little coda piece that is congruent with the beginning in “Preludes.” We recall that in the prelude Charlie awakens in fright beside his wife in bed. “Looking into the darkness, I have optical floaters: there, on the opposite wall, are gears turning separately and then moving closer to one another until their cogs start to mesh and rotate in unison.”
“Postludes” describes a different insomniacal night for Charlie, not the same one described in “Preludes.” It begins with Charlie’s decision—against Bradley’s advice—to begin his book with a character, himself, waking up in bed. Later he sits on the same bench in Allmendinger Park, arises from that bench and wanders around. It’s four a.m., with its special “luminous emptiness.” Michigan Stadium is now equipped with a fence, so the tradition of making love in the night on the fifty-yard line has come to an end. Charlie notes that the forest was sprayed with “moth-attacking bacteria,” and the gypsy moths have not returned this year. “My glimmerlessness has abated, it seems, at least for the moment.”
Re-entering his house soundlessly, Charlie passes the mirror too old to reflect anymore. His dog, Tasha, does not awake to bark, and Charlie heads back to bed. “How tired I am, how quiet these sentences have become, drifting slowly out of me, outward and away. The cogs are turning together, synchronized at last in the dark. I am dazed with sleepiness.”
The cogs and wheels and personages in the sky—Chloé’s, Ezekiel’s and Charlie’s cogs and persons—are turning and meshing well at the end. They have now concluded the writing of the fiction; the book is written and done. In “Postludes” we depart from all the invented characters and turn back to the “reality” of Charles Baxter, insomniac, resident of Ann Arbor, Michigan, who has just completed a novel. Of course, the story of “Charlie,” who writes a novel and sleeps at the end—beside his “wife,” whose ghostly presence in the book is little more than a disembodied arm and voice—is just another fiction enclosed within the covers of this book. Charlie is one more character controlled by the “real” Charles Baxter, author, who—so the narrative of this whole lovely book suggests—is no more real than any of his characters in the chimerical world—“the weirdness and the wetness”—of this midsummer night’s dream we all live in.
U.R. Bowie, author of Here We Be. Where Be We?