For the purposes of this blog post, I will operate as if sentences such as, “It’s odd how the books that come to a reader can overlap thematically in such a way as to reflect back to her certain truths about her own life,” are perfectly acceptable.
It’s odd how the books that come to a reader can overlap thematically in such a way as to reflect back to her certain truths about her own life. Of course, novels owe their existence to their authors’ ability to embrace and illustrate universal themes – like breakup songs and family sitcoms, we love that which resonates.
Tom Benedek’s Peleponnesia came to me through a friend whose cousin (if I recall the family connection correctly) wrote the book. He also wrote the screenplay for Cocoon, the Ron Howard-directed movie success, so, one assumes, the Hollywood setting of the novel must be based on his own experiences in the business. Perhaps this explains the style of writing, which feels heavy-handed at first. Here are my characters! the book shouts. By a third of the way in, however, those characters have engaged a reader enough that she wants to know what happens to them – and hopes for the proverbial Hollywood ending.
The novel tells the story of Harley Grace, a renowned producer suffering from a disease that causes him to forget whom he is. As his wife tries to keep his deterioration a secret from the town, Grace lives out his days fantasizing he’s Cleon, a general in the Peleponnesian army, an imagining prompted by Peleponnesia, a script he purchased years before, sure of its greatness.
Orbiting Grace’s parallel lives are Peleponnesia’s author (Roy something-or-other – I could look it up, but how often do we remember the names of the screenwriters anyway?), his wife Annabelle, his caretaker Lorna, his ex-wife Denise and (semi-spoiler alert) Denise’s son, M.T., a recovering addict who may or may not also be Grace’s son.
Peleponnesia, the script, tells the story of Cleon, a famed leader of men who nonetheless has made mistakes. We’re told he bounces back-and-forth in time, revisiting the past to correct those mistakes so that he can move on from them in the future – or at least, he’ll have the opportunity to learn from the past. Will he? Will the others? Will any of us? Doubtful, as long as we’re shackled by our present sense of self. Grace’s loss of his own identity makes him able to take on Cleon’s – gives him no choice but to substitute fiction for reality – and through another’s story to perhaps find redemption, or at least catharsis, for his own.
The protagonist of Rivka Galchen’s dreamy Atmospheric Disturbances would approve. “Maybe society should more seriously consider the coping mechanism of not talking about loss, at least not publicly,” asserts Dr. Leo Liebenstein, a psychiatrist whose wife, Rema, has disappeared: A highly superior coping mechanism, Liebenstein argues, is to cathart over the sufferings of fictional creations. Liebenstein has plenty of coping to do, not only due to the fact that his wife is missing, but because another woman has taken Rema’s place – a woman who looks, talks and acts exactly like her. Well, almost exactly. Liebenstein notices differences imperceptible to others.
In his quest to find the real Rema, he enlists the help of Harvey, his patient who believes himself to be a secret agent in a war utilizing weather as a weapon, as well as that of Tzvi Gal-Chen, a scholar at the Royal Academy of Meteorology. The belief that we can control circumstances over which we have no power is clearly delusional; our ability to make sense of them through academic understanding may or may not be. Liebenstein seeks to reclaim his wife through a series of acts clearly desperate to those on the outside, but which unfold as a logical path in his mind.
His journey takes him to Argentina, Rema’s birthplace, a land where the word “disappeared” lives and breathes with historical horror, where we’re reminded that the difference between disappearing and leaving is all the difference in the world, and where Liebenstein’s experience with a pastry illustrates how what’s artificial can come to replace what’s real:
“I asked the Rema-ish waitress for an apple Danish; it tasted like real apple rather than apple flavoring. Ironically this made the taste seem ersatz to me, on account of the fact that all my childhood the flavor I knew and loved took the form of fritters wrapped in plastic.”
Atmospheric Disturbances is a mystery, as is life, with marriage being not the least of the mysterious components we – inadvertently? – subject ourselves to. What Liebenstein finds, what he is able to control, to understand, we come to know, depends on how well he truly understands the people around him. But what surety do any of us have that our interpretation of others is accurate? The person we see and the self that person sees reflected in the mirror are not exact replicas. Whether or not we can reconcile our idea of a person with whom they actually are determines the success of many relationships. And so we root for Liebenstein to find his wife.
Great House, by Nicole Krauss, is also a mystery, one filtered through Krauss’ painfully beautiful writing. At times I found myself looking up from the page, overwhelmed and needing to steady myself before plunging back in.
This one revolves around a desk and also has ties to South America – the desk once belonged to a Chilean poet, Daniel Larsky, who is “disappeared” by Pinochet’s secret police. Larsky had loaned it to an American novelist, who returns it to a woman claiming to be Larsky’s daughter. The story begins with the novelist recounting how she came to lose the desk, then shifts between three other narrators, all with their own stories of loss. There is another poet, this one in London, and other secrets. We meet an Israeli father angry at his son, a man who, as a boy, imagined himself a writer. The lover of another man, this one the son of an antiques dealer in Jerusalem, tells their story. The journey of the desk serves as a vehicle for all these stories, as well as the place where they connect.
One drawer of the desk is locked. In another, a man discovers evidence that his wife is not, after all, the woman he thought he knew. Again, we’re drawn into a story about the importance – or is it the impossibility? – of knowing others. All these characters spend a great deal of time reflecting on their own inner workings, but all are confounded by those they love. Some withdraw intentionally. The writer cannot help but put the writing first. The father cannot fathom his son and so he dismisses his actions as ridiculous. As he ages, however, he finds alienation is not a long-term solution.
In thoughts directed at his son, he explains:
“There is a fallacy that the powerful emotion of youth mellows with time. Not true. One learns to control and suppress it. But it doesn’t lessen. It simply hides and concentrates itself in more discreet places. When one accidentally stumbles into one of these abysses, the pain is spectacular.”
Unlike the characters, readers are deliberately led into the abyss. And yes, the pain can be spectacular – but sometimes, so is the reward.