Now I’m alone with it. In 12-point Cambria font, on eight-and-a-half-by- eleven paper, the manuscript runs to 375 pages. Were the novel published, and I took it from the shelf, it would seem a nicely proportioned volume, slim yet substantial, a book for today. But in this form, here on the desk of my study, the thing overwhelms. It seems impossible that it could have emerged from my wife, who is shrinking every year.
Six inches deep, the fruit of fathomless labour, my wife’s novel dwarfs everything on the desk, where I never should have placed it. I imagine how the novel took shape inside her, word by word – clustering – and I find it difficult to approach, like a body, something that can punish curiosity. Yet I have to sit and begin. My wife printed and served me these papers; she expects a response.
And I’m nothing if not a critic. I have a career and a reputation. It’s generally received that something I write is something worth reading. My wife respects my positions; indeed the prospect of my rendering judgment surely frightens my wife, who might be at the door, fretfully listening for pages turning. Swiftly I open the door— there’s no one. She’s down the hall, or upstairs – perhaps she’s taking a walk – in any case waiting for her husband to become the critic of her novel, a dreadful waiting. I peel back the page.
Our setting is Bethel, “a thread of a town” in the Pacific Northwest, “just a deep homerun from Canada.” The year is 1965. My wife’s novel centres around a high-school relationship between the narrator, Josephine, and a boy named Benjamin Ames. Benjamin is a pure child of the region and the era. When he rides his ten-speed, his hair unfurls in the wind like banners of victory; he stirs Josephine to a spiritual froth. The opening lines are exemplary of her mesmerized, uncalculated voice, so unlike my wife’s:
Benjamin once saw the captain of the senior basketball team hit a game-winner against Riverton. He said the guy stripped down to his underwear, pushed through the crowd, and ran out into the night. He said the guy went totally wild. It was the last game he ever played. Benjamin painted that picture in my head so I still have it, a guy going out with a shot, sprinting face-first into the world.
In one of the many artificial felicities that characterize my wife’s novel, and her view of the universe more generally, Benjamin is himself compelled to go out with a shot. He appears in Josephine’s bedroom in the dead of night in October, and confesses that he’s killed a man. “That’s all he said,” says Josephine. “I killed him, Josy, I killed him.” Josephine moves to embrace him, but he turns roughly away. He tells her he’s going to Canada. She sees a stain on Benjamin’s jacket – the stain is wet – and then he’s gone.
Her relationship to Benjamin is severed that night, and yet it acquires an unreal life. No murder is ever reported; no one questions Benjamin’s disappearance; he seems to have vanished “like a half-domestic animal that reverts to the wild in an instant.” In this narrative vacuum, Josephine embroiders him a fictional life, styling Benjamin Ames into a figure of near-religious sanctity. From her perspective, we’re provided fantastic glimpses of his fugitive years in scenes that collapse the border between truth and fiction, a gesture familiar to readers of even the most conventional postmodern novels.
Indeed readers will be forgiven for becoming enervated with the first part of my wife’s novel, which amounts to a sustained hagiography of Benjamin Ames. “I have to cherish every detail,” Josephine tells herself, because he’s destined for the very highest greatness. It’s like I’m hearing the voice of future historians trying to understand how he became the one who did the Great Thing. They’re telling me to hold on, because absolutely any little detail could be the key. I’m holding onto a sight of Benjamin at Jolly’s Diner, sucking down a vanilla milkshake. I want to tell historians that the colour of that milkshake is the colour of his soul.
I get the sense that my wife considers these breathless passages among her novel’s best. But just as when we’re invited to a formal gathering, and believing herself elegant, my wife dresses in her very most tasteless clothes, and her fundamentally provincial nature goes on full display, so it is precisely when she tries to write well that she writes badly.
After all, what makes Benjamin Ames so alluring? I don’t see it on the page. He’s such a character. All he does is kill a man, and go to Canada. I tell the text: justify Josephine’s obsession. Is it so remarkable to kill someone? In fact any imbecile can kill someone; it’s an elementary act, like childbirth. The reader will grow sick – indeed physically nauseous – at the exhibition of Josephine’s heart, like a defrosted strawberry slathered on the page.
Well, keep in mind, children feel all manner of silly thing, and perhaps some middlebrow readers will, too. I must check my bias. My critique must extend even to my own reading. Of course one has to admit I read my wife’s novel on high alert for signs of myself. Am I threatened, or disappointed, by Benjamin’s prominence? But then are we, in the final analysis, really so different, when shot through the prism of my wife’s imagination? Peering past these words, into the deep core of their creation, I consider that Benjamin might be something of the man she once thought I was. I suppose I can see how, through a combination of naïveté and frank distortion – that is, through the mind of my wife – she once misinterpreted me, and believed I possessed the garish qualities of a Benjamin Ames. And perhaps one would find me guilty of having encouraged her in such a belief.
Halfway through, my wife’s novel takes a most astonishing turn. Without forewarning, the story simply awakens twenty-five years ahead. Remarkably, we find ourselves no longer in the head of Josephine, but rather hovering above her in the third- person. I interpret this shift as both psychological and social. We’re given to believe that the third-person reflects a self-consciousness Josephine has acquired from years of life- experience, and also that this new detachment, a vision of the world divested of idealism, reflects a certain American spirit at the end of the Reagan ‘80s. By any account, the text immediately communicates that it’s operating on several discrete levels.
While hardened into herself, Josephine, now a woman in her forties, hasn’t entirely lost sight of a vision of Benjamin Ames. Beneath her composed exterior, as if beneath the sculpted prose itself, some talisman of Ames persists. After suffering several setbacks, with not a little self-sabotage, she finds herself returning to the night of the murder and Benjamin’s escape. She seems to reconstruct the story of her life around the catastrophe of that night, and in a fitful spasm of hope, as if to keep the novel of herself in motion, she resolves to find him.
So commences a byzantine series of twists that I cannot hope to summarize. Suffice it to say that, after a chapter that requires considerable attention, Josephine locates Benjamin on an obscure and backward island off the west coast of Canada.
He’s visibly marked by life as a jack-of-all-tradesman, missing the ends of two fingers. It’s among the first things she notices, because she immediately knows she’ll marry him.
One must concede some admiration for how my wife treats their renewed relationship. There’s palpable fatigue to their romance, as if their aging bodies aren’t athletic enough for the strain of falling in love. In my wife’s novel, an epic love isn’t any rejuvenation, but rather a profound submission, as if to a medical treatment.
If time has disabused Josephine of certain ideals, which not even the warmth of Benjamin’s body, close in bed at night, can return to her, from Benjamin it has utterly stripped the qualities that made him seem a kind of shaman. The very chemistry of his aura has congealed. Josephine tells herself that the legacy of the murder has slowly drained him, and that his terseness – indeed, his bald simplicity – is a guard against the trauma. She broaches it; he thrusts her aside, and can’t make love.
No sooner have he and Josephine married, however, than we finally understand the true nature of his evasions. On their wedding sheets, Benjamin delivers himself of a slobbering monologue in which we learn that there never was a murder, that he’d left her and Bethel simply on a whim, simply to start again elsewhere. We learn that he is, in every sense, a fraud.
Many readers will have seen it coming. But my wife should be commended for the bitter irony of this reversal, for in an instant we perceive that Josephine’s experience of life has no substance, that her real marriage, with the real Benjamin, is but the apotheosis of her dreaming. Like certain heroines of 19th-century literature, Josephine finds herself locked inside a total mediocrity.
Now the story begins its controlled descent into the denouement, during which the narrator removes to an even greater distance. We seem to drift from Josephine with every passing page, as if the narrator – the author or my wife – cannot tolerate proximity to her protagonist. As middle-age shades into old-, Josephine seems more and more like a ruin of desire, yet the author or my wife doesn’t leave her with disgust, but a lament. In bidding Josephine farewell, we seem to bid desire itself farewell.
I consider these passages the most affecting of my wife’s novel. I’m reminded of when something flies right from the cave of herself, and I’m unexpectedly startled or moved by my wife. She seems to look down upon Josephine with a disappointed eye, which actually serves to please my eye. Vaguely we sense that certain crucial things might have turned out differently, had certain words not been chosen here or there, but that the plot was finally inexorable, somehow beyond even the author’s power.
I’m frankly silenced by the dignity of this final movement. The narrator, the author or my wife, locates a profound resolve. I applaud such formal perfection, entirely cleansed of excess and enthusiasm. I’ve never seen her see things so clearly. The triumph of my wife’s novel is that it brought her to this Olympian vantage. There is nothing she couldn’t perceive with utmost precision in the light of these closing passages. How refined is my wife’s late style, when compared with the gross vitality of the young Josephine.
It could reasonably be said that I’ve always been a champion of refinement. I pause before the final chapter to indulge a thought: is my wife’s novel the story of her rising up to greet my aesthetic?
The novel ends where it began, in Bethel. Josephine and Benjamin have returned to where their love took root. We’re given to understand it will be their last trip to America. Not long into the journey, Benjamin starts talking about Jolly’s Diner. It seems like the only place he really remembers, but he remembers it well. He starts naming things on the menu. He wants to go there.
The diner, which appears to have changed hands several times, is derelict, like everything else downtown. Sun-bleached newsprint covers the broad windows. Now that they find themselves outside, Benjamin is quiet, agitated. He leans against a mailbox, counting coins in the palm of his hand. Almost reverently, Josephine approaches the restaurant, then suddenly turns and seizes him by the hand, spilling the coins. She orders him to look inside. He blinks and moves flat-footed to the window. With the greatest possible concentration, Josephine observes the man, his face pressed against the glass.
“What is it people do,” asks the author or my wife,
when they look through the papered-over window of a place they used to know? Are they trying somehow to discern what’s caused it to close, or are they peering through the paper as if to be inside a final time?