Another Love Story and Other Reviews

Tom Whalen

Illustration by Hugo Muecke

Another Love Story

I didn't know it was a murder mystery until too late. By that time Karin had texted both Alonzo and Bertrand, when she had only wanted to text Alonzo, but she was a little high that day, you know, on...what was it? Yes, now I remember, but by the time I remembered I had already forgotten, so heady is this novel of passions I assumed I had outgrown. "Two years ago my husband left me," the novel begins. I thought I was in for a confession that would reveal...But no, I walked for days up and down my apartment, book in hand, moaning like a donkey beaten to his limits, or her limits, as the case may be, I'm not sure. That the narrator managed a certain gender ambiguity or equilibrium astonished me less than that she reminded me of my ex-wife, e.g., the gap in her two front teeth, through which I often descended like an airplane shorn of its wings. A chapter spent in the cockpit I found particularly intimate and informative, having never been in one myself. Cabins, yes, I know about them, more it seems than the author of Another Love Story. Still, how remarkable this novel is! No wonder my ex-sister-in-law recommended it. What other author has honored so well what is sacred about mystery? I pour myself another glass of La Cloutade 2005, and ponder for a moment, courtesy of the best-selling author's research team, a history of tweeting, texting, SMS-ing, emailing, drifting, dreaming...I suppose I awoke on page 309, yawned, stretched, which I've always thought the novel had every right now and then to do, like an aging person drifts into an afternoon of tennis, sun, sweat, heat stinging the corner of her eye as she misses with a backhand the golden ball and laughs, one hand on her thigh, midday, the bark of her laugh awakening in the reader, or at least this one, everything we know to be true and at the same moment broken, all that compels us to desire the opposite of loneliness. For some reason I keep confusing the narrator with the author, who, as I take a break in the middle of a (thus far) 16-page description of a shower scene after an hour of tennis, I now see from her bio note has been thrice married. Both Karin and Doug (the former, Swiss; the latter black Irish), by the way, refused to play a game as such, preferring to volley rather than compete. Whatever opens the floodgates to love interests me at the moment less than the scene sure to follow of a quotidian misunderstanding. He: "I was always there for you and you for me. You had my back and I had yours." She: "But you didn't." I await pantingly like some silly school girl this dialogue I am sure will occur somewhere around page 600 of this, let's see, 927-page tome, as fate tears the lovers apart. Frankly, I don't understand the affairs of women and men, women and women, men and men, children and children, even though I've experienced all or almost all of the above. Do you? Careful how you answer. Delusion is only edifying as long as you're still breathing. For nine months, you see, Karin had been having an affair with a colleague in the philosophy department at the University of Freiburg, the same institute, in a surprising coincidence (the author, it turns out, resides in Basel), where one semester I taught a course on Henry James's fiction during his transition years 1896 to 1901. Another Love Story, however, reminds me less of the Master's vampiric The Sacred Fount, than it does The Sentimental Education. After her affair with her colleague, she and Doug drift apart, he travels and comes to know, somewhat as in Flaubert's novel, the sorrow of killing a dog while driving drunk on Highway 14 from Lake Charles to Lake Arthur in southwest Louisiana, and the bitterness of acquiring from a casual acquaintance an incurable but not fatal sexual disease. (We learn this from emails that appear like magic on her screen late at night.) Intoxicated by his past, he begins to believe in the possibility, the poetic rightness of a reconciliation. Then abruptly Karin learns over Facebook that he's dead, someone killed Doug a week before their rendezvous in Sils-Maria. Oddly neither she nor the author reveals who committed the murder. In my mind's eye Karin retreats through an endless recession of lighted rooms and then vanishes. Once she asked Doug if he knew the etymology of ethics, and he said no, I never took Greek. If I recall, this was on page 413, where they sheltered during a thunderstorm on the covered Quaibrücke in Thun. Wasn't it then that she began, if only faintly, to sever herself from whom she would later call her Count Nosferatu? Perhaps.

For days as I pored over this bestseller in seventeen countries, as the jacket flap says without naming the countries, I wondered why I felt compelled to keep reading it. Sometimes it has less to do with story or style than the manner in which the reader is living. I, for example, spent a delightful morning yesterday conversing with five young women from Spain, Brazil, and Russia. We talked about how strange the German language was, how peculiar its syntax, how impenetrable its intention. Then after four Pils, I returned home pert as the dickens, and devoured in a gulp the final 200 pages.






The Slave of Time

When I read historical novels the present proudly proclaims itself more important than the past. In The Slave of Time, when the heroine dances naked on a bridge during a time when such whims terrified the villagers as much as they would now, I imagine albeit discreetly and briefly the women I know in my corner of Stuttgart showering or bathing as they prepare for their day in and about the city, busy with this and that, olive oil for Frau Kretsch, IT-consulting for Frau Ing, child- and house-caring for a dozen others, and so on. How is it that one moment I can be eavesdropping on a salon gathering whose casual, cigarette-enhanced conversation contains the seed of a war between states, and the next lost in the troubles that worm their way deep into the infrastructure and politics of a city as ganz gemütlch, totally comfortable and self-assured, as if asleep in its own thick arms, as Stuttgart is? Goddess of History, what is it you're trying to tell us? Whatever it is, I see no evidence that we've listened, or if we have, then only indifferently, as if Hegel had developed a fancy for warm beer and girls rather than the belief that History has a purpose. And who am I to say that the world would have been better off without Hegel's view? But isn't this, too, to see History as possessing intention? If I'm not careful, The Slave of Time will convince me that my days of reading also mean more than I think and that it's our duty in life to uncover these meanings. But to what end? Well, for our heroine it's a date with the scaffold. What questions this remarkably slim novel evokes! On the other hand, if History is without meaning, might not novels also be? For example, on the last page (99) we're suddenly transported to a kitchen in contemporary Malibu where the author addresses us in her own voice, as if what we've just read bore no relation to reality. After holding the heroine's hand for an hour while she trembled in her jail cell the morning after the affair on the bridge and being reminded of the demons that wracked my own mother during her breakdown, how disappointed I was at the end to see our author chirping away at her computer. Nor do I think would my disappointment have been lessened had I read the e-book version with its link to a guided tour of the town where her novel is set. Is this the better world Hegel believed in? Is this "the progress of the consciousness of freedom"?






Patricia

Something is horribly wrong. The woman across from Ziegler in an Italian restaurant in Lugano isn't his wife Patricia. Her name is Patricia, that's clear from the novel's second sentence, which I need not quote here. I remember it well because that day a fog had rolled into the valley and I couldn't see more than a foot in front of me, so I spent the morning reading Patricia as if I were a drowning person and the novel a raft that would save me, until I noticed that the people on this raft weren't right. Take Ziegler, for example: why was he limping on page three when he hadn't been on page two? I couldn't understand it. A brumous gloom swirled over and in my head. I felt I wasn't reading a novel, but listening to a suite of typos. Yes, even the letters weren't what and where they were supposed to be. Was this by design or error? I couldn't tell. I could quote passages, but I'm afraid to. What would happen if I made mistakes of the mistakes? Would that correct them? Or would I be distorting a masterpiece I'm too dense to understand? Again Patricia enters my thoughts like a nagging wife, no, not nagging, rather a constant buzzing in my ears. She's telling Ziegler of her affair with Roy, an investment banker at McIrgletoy and Bleistift. Her upper lip curls every time she says his name–Roy, Roy, Roy. Ziegler is reminded of the tongue of a shoe, the way the leather rolls back as if to welcome the foot. Patricia's teeth glisten under the restaurant's lights. He wonders if they'll make love when they return to the hotel. End of the first chapter.

In the fifth and final chapter they're dressing for dinner at a house in the country after an afternoon of shooting game. Patricia puts on a dress Ziegler has never seen before. And then a bracelet ditto. He looks closer at his wife. She appears ten years older, her face fleshier, the sheen gone from her hair. Has he, too, aged? Are we even still in Switzerland? No to the first question, yes (I think) to the latter. He stares into the shell-lined mirror in the guest bathroom and thinks he looks younger by ten years and eager for the party to begin. But the party below is a parody, not a real party. I've never read its like, but hundreds similar to it. The scene is as smooth as the ceramic trays upon which servants have placed crackers in the shape of parallelograms topped by cones of white cheese glistening in the light from a chandelier. Ziegler draws a woman in a gown the color of night into a niche cut into the rock face wall. The music is that of the spheres, the conversation underneath it banter about the blight creeping over Europe, perhaps extraterrestrial in origin. Alone in the room, ignored, Patricia feels older, out of place amongst this catalogue of early 21st century members of the haute bourgeoisie. She feels like she's sinking into a pond (despond?) and wants someone to sweep her out of this chalet and back to the city, to a life spent on the tennis courts of her club, drinks in the evenings with friends, perhaps a movie or an opera, flights to distant cities...But what is she thinking? She doesn't belong to a club, is afraid to fly, and hasn't played tennis in decades. She takes another cracker from a passing tray, hides behind her façade of smiles, looks around for a husband who's no longer there.



Tom Whalen is the author of Roithamer's Universe, Dolls, and The Birth of Death and Other Comedies: The Novels of Russell H. Greenan. His fiction, nonfiction, poetry and translations have appeared in Agni, Bookforum, Chicago Review, The Hopkins Review, Fiction International, Film Quarterly, Georgia Review, Literary Review, New Ohio Review, Paris Review, Ploughshares, the Washington Post, and elsewhere. He teaches American literature at Freiburg University and film at the State Academy of Art and Design in Stuttgart, Germany. His novel The President in Her Towers: A Report is forthcoming from Ellipsis Press.



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