BOOKS AND ARTS MAY 6, 2009
By John Wray
(Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 258 pp., $25)
Craigslist has a section called "Missed Connections," with posts about exactly that. The settings vary. Connections are missed in line at the drugstore or the bank or the movie theater, in the street, on the bus and the train, at concerts, airports, sporting events, at bars and coffee shops. And a steady undercurrent of these frustrations occurs in the subway. Whatever the specifics--Red Line, 4:30 p.m., that smile--the posts sing together one unsullied message to their objects of desire: you might have passed by unnoticed in the background of my experience, but no--you were the experience, you were the spotlighted star. There is romance nestled in such a declaration, a cool sentimentality that depends on the dense texture of urban life, the phenomenon of strangers, the habituation to a living background that hums and bustles with us or without us, and is full of wounds and wants that we all agree to ignore just to get by.
The line between the individual and his surroundings vanishes in the city, which is a kind of sea: separating the figure from the ground, the person from the blur, demands a conscious effort, an exercise in mental editing, on the part of its fast-moving dwellers. Cities transmute the distinction between background and foreground from a presumption into an activity. And it was in the subway, that hurling sardine box of perfect strangers, that this aspect of urban life coalesced, became visible. In 1938, for example, Walker Evans descended into the tunnels and began to document it. With a small lens peeking out between the buttons of his coat, Evans rode the New York subway and photographed the unsuspecting passengers sitting across from him. Published in 1966 as Many Are Called, the images are indelible. His subjects--gossiping women, hard and suspicious men, sophisticated ladies, wizened gentlemen--are not exactly ignoring Evans and the other denizens of the car; they are, subtly but undeniably, masking themselves. "Before every mirror [the mask] is hard at work, saving the creature who cringes behind it from the sight that might destroy it," James Agee insisted in his introduction to the collection.
The best way to describe Will Heller, or Lowboy, the star of John Wray's novel, is that he is the cringing creature without a mask. A sixteen-year-old paranoid schizophrenic with an affinity for the New York subway, Will's posturing always misses the mark. In a photograph Will appears panicked, a "grin ... fixed to the front of [his face] like a screen around an operating table." Will cannot for the life of him keep background and foreground straight. This is a crisis of the assigning of meaning with ease. In some moments Will drowns in the sheer amount of data at hand, and in others all significance evaporates and the subway and the people in it are no more than a stage set: "The walls of the car, for example, that had always seemed so solid, were actually hollow as an egg.... Unreality broke over him again, stronger and more emphatic than before. It's a wave, that's all, he told himself. A wave like any other. You can ride it like a surfer if you want to."
Bellow's dangling man would recognize an unhinged cousin in Will Heller. Bellow's Joseph observes that "there was no trusting [the objects of common sense], save through wide agreement, and that my separation from such agreement had brought me perilously far from that necessary trust, auxiliary to all sanity." If Joseph can imagine living outside this agreement, Will lives in permanent exile from it. In Lowboy, he is in exile from the cognitive consensus, a mad savant, seeing the world with a sloughed-off rawness that his fellow passengers, gliding through their nine-to-five slog, register only as a vague exhaustion: "The train pulled into the next station and the car began to fill with clayfaced people. That's the tiredness, thought Lowboy. They want to curl up on the ground and go to sleep."
John Wray's first novel, The Right Hand of Sleep, set in rural Austria on the cusp of World War II, appeared to great acclaim in 2001, when Wray was twenty-nine. Canaan's Tongue, his Civil War-era second novel, published in 2005, was similarly well received, and cemented Wray's membership in the cadre of critically praised but somehow underappreciated young writers. (A group that apparently gathers for consoling dinner parties, according to New York magazine. ) So what, exactly, are most of us missing out on?
Novels that attract critical acclaim tend to have one of two traits: either vast investments of the writer's own intellect (as in Infinite Jest), so that they provide some plausible view of The Way We Live Now; or a supreme self-consciousness about constructing a narrative (as in White Teeth), so that they provoke an aesthetic satisfaction on the part of readers and critics ("so that's how it works!"). Wray offers neither. His three novels are told straight, with no analytical or authorial voice in sight. What Wray does offer is an extended portrait of the interiority of troubled men. For Wray, a type of madness lies at the heart of seeing the world clearly, and that is his subject. It is odd: as historical atrocities (the Holocaust, slavery) rumble in the background of his first two novels, Wray telescopes his lens on one individual troubled not by the events of history, but by an attunement to a certain horror of living that courses beneath all circumstance. "The lights get brighter suddenly as in a theater & I'm in the audience & not even in a good seat," Will writes to his mother during a sojourn in an asylum. "I've seen terrible things Violet. Somebody had to see them. Somebody low." Wray's uncannily observant protagonist may be crazy; but to have no inkling of this perspective, for Wray, is the real insanity.
The madness that discreetly haunted Will Heller's protagonist predecessors--Oskar Voxlauer, in The Right Hand of Sleep, fears inheriting the insanity that led his father to suicide; in Canaan's Tongue, Virgil Ball, blind in one eye, has visions swirling with shapes and portents--explodes in Lowboy. Surroundings matter. Voxlauer, in the mode of Hemingway's "Big Two-Hearted River," finds solace in the modesty and the process of natural order. But for Will there is only New York City and the brutal subway beneath it. With the pendulum swung to one extreme, Will looks at the subway car and sees too much:
a controlled environment, a staging area, planned down to the last detail by people he would never know or see. No surprises in here, Lowboy said to himself. No accidents.... He would never meet the people who'd drawn the blueprint, never have a chance to question them, but he could learn things just by looking at the car. You could see, for example, that they were fearful men.... The interior of the car was waterproof, the better to be hosed down in case of bloodshed. And the seats were arranged not for maximum efficiency, not to seat the greatest number of people comfortably and safely, but to express the designers' fear with perfect clarity: Nobody sat with their back turned on anybody else.
In Wray's netherworld, the city--and the incessant contemplation of the unnatural and the man-made that it provokes--aggravates and abrades a bad mind. (Will imagines the subway as an ouroboros, "the dragon that ate its own tail.") And the usurpation of nature by the city changes everything: nature is alive and poetically inscrutable, a replenishing source of expansive wonder, whereas the urban universe is dead and packed with all too legible significations. For Wray, there is madness in never escaping these significations and their specificities.
Wray wants Lowboy to be a grandly relevant everyman--a clunky plot twist in the last pages reveals that even those who appear normal can be as mad as he is--and Wray does succeed in rendering Will vividly recognizable, with language that is modest, familiar, and yet disorienting. (Wray began as a poet.) But unfortunately, all this--the language, the humane sympathy, the devotion to truth--does not lift Lowboy very far above its unbelievably circumscribed subject. Wray places all his chips on his central character (the few other characters are flat, and utterly unavailable to us), and the bet does not quite pay off. Finally Will is too stunted to say much about living (a requirement of a novel, no?).
One could imagine a novel that captured the perspective of a baby or a dog in a way that seemed truthful and even relevant, but the achievement would be owed to everything in the book that is not the baby and not the dog. The reward of so much subjectivity in a novel is owed in the end to its incompleteness, so that we may identify the familiar world that is being illuminated in an unfamiliar way. A novel about spiritual claustrophobia must not be spiritually claustrophobic itself. We may recognize something of ourselves in Will Heller, but there is much in us that he would not recognize: ordinary empathy, the struggle to live a moral life, decision-making, responsibility, duty, honor, courage, cowardice. Will can barely keep his head above water--not drowning is his only concern. So Lowboy, for all its power, does not linger long in the mind, because once the book ends we are returned to the endlessly more important puzzle of how its singular perspective fits into a life lived above the subway, at ground level, where the real engagements and the common obligations take place.
Wray explores a great and genuine problem in Lowboy, the near-insurmountable difficulty of communicating successfully with another--a problem particularly suited to redress in the act of writing a novel--and then stoutly refuses to tackle the problem himself. Communication in its myriad forms--sex, casual conversation, love--is dealt a near-fatal blow in Lowboy. What if one's own mind is the only thing that never fades into the background? How can one know another human being, and how can one be known, when one is imprisoned in the solitariness of sealed-away reflection? (Will at one point describes the object of his affections as "a little round house without any openings.") The fear that there may be no answer, that we may in the end be utterly alone, rattles through Lowboy; but this is reductive, not revealing.
Mostly Will has fleeting conversations with fleeting characters--a Sikh, a tunnel-dwelling crack-addict, a prostitute named Secretary--in the course of his underground adventure. And the adventure, the entire novel, takes place over the course of a single day: November 11, 2008. This is the book's other large conceit. Wray splits his story into two, with Will on one side, and Will's mother, Violet, and a detective, Ali Lateef, on the other, searching for Will in the maelstrom of New York City. The novel itself resembles a subway car as it hurtles forward, circumscribed in its scope, with no detours and only a few stops. It starts in the morning and ends at night, while the experience inside is perfectly still, profound but uneventful, and stuck in Will's swirling observations. And Will has a calling, an obsession: global warming has cooked the world and it will end that very afternoon in a ball of fire, unless Will can cool himself down (the world is inside him, too). He can accomplish this cooling by having sex. A "prisoner of [his] own brainpan," Will frames his mission in this way: "to break the membrane that had held him all his life, to slip out into the putrefying world. He had to put himself in another body."
You wish him well in his search for sex, this boy who thinks too much. But it is quickly apparent that Will faces an uphill battle to intercourse. When a girl smiles from across the car, Will tries to smile back. "He kept his eyes wide open and made sure to show her his teeth. The strangeness of what he was attempting made the roof of his mouth go numb.... Lowboy waved at the girl and opened his eyes wider and pointed at his mouth." Sex seems to offer a momentary escape from his "brainpan," the chance to celebrate in abandon the aspect of life that is the "putrefying world." But to reach his aim Will has to rely on words, which forge the unavoidable yet untrustworthy bridge between brainpan and world. In Lowboy, communication is darkly impossible--a source not of knowledge, but of pain. Everyone in Lowboy is afraid of being misheard, of sounding not like themselves. Will often finds that his voice sounds wrong, like "a broken hinge" or "a middle-aged RN." After saying something to the detective, Violet "turned her head to gauge Lateef's reaction. She was afraid that he'd have no response at all, that he'd fail to understand, that her solitude would become absolute."
The failure of hearing disintegrates the foreground and the background for Will, and returns him to where he began: to the unconquerable abyss of his own mind. He fears the moments when the "doubts" begin and the world goes "flat." On the train he wishes to explain his mission to a Sikh gentleman, but with a few stray remarks ("Why does he have to say everything twice, thought Lowboy. I'm not deaf"), the man fades into "something contrived." Will struggles to hold the Sikh in the foreground: "'It's alright, then,' [Lowboy] said cheerfully. But it wasn't alright. His voice sounded wrong to him, precious and stilted, the voice of a spoiled English lord." Will looks and sees his failure, the Sikh now "flat and pleasant and unnatural as cake." Being heard properly, then, has become paramount. Derrida once described God as the being that can never be misheard or misunderstood: a measure of the gulf between the human and the divine, and a sacralization of the ever-present fear that one's words might not be able to travel across without perversion. But in Lowboy this vast gulf and this constant fear has drifted downward, and fallen into the daily and profane space between ourselves and others.
Salvation, or the hope of salvation, in all of Wray's novels, comes in the form of a woman. Love, for Wray, arrives as a proper recognition, and the beloved is the person whose meaning holds across time--the person who refuses to show up as just another stranger. This is an old theme. In the Odyssey, Penelope stares at the man she has not seen in twenty years: "A long while she sat in silence ... numbing wonder/filled her heart as she explored his face./ One moment he seemed ... Odysseus, to the life--/The next, no, he was not the man she knew,/a huddled mass of rags was all she saw." In The Right Hand of Sleep, Wray closed a chapter with the whisper of Voxlauer's lover, Else: "I won't confuse you, Herr Voxlauer." In Wray's universe this is the defining profession of love, and there is nothing higher.
For Will, there is Emily. A skinny tomboy, she is an exalted high point in an otherwise low world. Their love predates the opening of Lowboy, it arrives as a given. Will loves Emily because, when with her, the world tends to stay righted--"with anyone else he'd have started to have his doubts." And Emily loves Will because she sees in him something worth saving. He is fallen and she is a redeemer: for all the harshness and the grunginess, Wray is a sentimental writer. In a touching scene, Emily takes Will to a thrift store to get new clothes ("You look like an usher at the Special Olympics," she tells him), and after she has outfitted Will he says, "What do I look like.... What person place or thing do I resemble." She pulls him toward the mirror, but he insists, "Tell me.... I want you to tell me." And so she does, thoroughly and simply: "You've got on sixties-style jeans with a little pair of dice on the back pocket...." Her facts, and the fact of her, banish his doubts. Will has found the mirror--Emily--whose reflection does not destroy him.
The problem with Lowboy is that Wray does not trust the reader not to mishear or to misconstrue, and this leaves the novel strangely thin and unaffecting. He is exasperatingly reticent, and his reticence seems finally like an attempt to control the reader, to deny the reader all that she needs to know for the purpose of a larger understanding. Too much of the world is missing from this portrait of its distortion. "Lowboy was five foot ten and weighed 150 pounds exactly. His hair was parted on the left," is the most we get above the heads of the characters themselves (although even that could be Will taking stock of himself). Wray depicts a fundamental crisis in communication, and introduces a mode of relationship that has a hope of breaching the gulf between us--and when faced with the original gap between author and reader, he does not attempt to jump it himself. Instead he relies on a single voice, and on symbols that are shallow and obvious: a boy named Will has trouble exerting exactly that; Violet works at a department store painting faces on mannequins, because sometimes real people appear fake; everyone, except for Emily, has multiple names, because another person's identity is a hard thing to pin down; Will believes the world is inside him, and (spoiler!) that world does end.
And when the world--and the novel--ends, it is hard to care too much. Lowboy ends as a missed connection: a romance that evaporates by the next stop, not the discovery of love. Wray seems to hope that we will spot him on the subway, and see past his mask to something insistent, something worth holding in the foreground, worth justifying. But the mooning over missed connections is finally no more than a kind of negative sentimentality about coincidence: as if finding one's Odyssean home in another person is only a matter of chance, something that can be "missed" while bending down to tie a shoelace, when surely it is a bond made also of human responsibility, an uncasual eruption of faith followed by the work of commitment that is required for a genuine recognition of another. In the former there are no stakes, and in the latter the stakes could not be higher. And so this tale of a soul for whom everything is always on the line is surprisingly weightless. Will Heller's life is hard, but John Wray's novel is not.
Sophia Lear is assistant to the The New Republic's literary editor.