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Lawrence David
Random House, $21.00

by Mark LaFlaur

"Judging whether life is or is not worth living," Camus asserted in The Myth of Sisyphus, "amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy." This troubling question sits at the heart of Lawrence David's second novel, Need, a compelling, disturbing, and unflinching portrayal of the horror of "the unspoken life" -- the emotional atrophy of relationships when people do not communicate, whether from indifference or fear of revealing weakness. As for David's answer to Camus' question, it is neither simple nor reassuring.

Dr. Pamela Thompson is a New York psychiatrist who has to convince her suicidal patients that life is indeed worth living -- not only because it's part of her job, but because she needs reassurance herself. Her most obsessively needy patient is Joan Dwyer, an idle, fortyish divorcée who sincerely wants to end the pain of her lonely, purposeless existence. Thompson's husband is Dennis Perry, a passive-aggressive -- mostly passive -- graphic artist living in a cocoon of an almost infantile self-centeredness -- "almost" because his libido is fully developed and controls his life.

Pamela Thompson wants to help Joan believe life is worth living, not simply to supply her with mood-altering prescriptions. But Thompson herself can't help but notice "[h]ow ugly people's needs are, how ugly people become as they take action to fulfill their needs." Her strength is purely a matter of appearances: early in her relationship with Dennis, she confides to a therapist, "I can't let him see how vulnerable I am. I'm afraid he wouldn't want me if he saw I was that weak."

Dennis doesn't think of their marriage that way, but rather than argue the point, he retreats into passivity. After eight years of marriage, the fundamental questions of their lives together remain unanswered, perhaps because Dennis's preference for withdrawal over engagement. And their solitary lives together might have continued indefinitely if Dennis had not coincidentally met Joan Dwyer having a drink at a hotel bar after a session with Pamela.

Notwithstanding her therapist's psychological prescriptions, Joan believes deeply that all she needs is to be loved by a man. Without such love, she has no sense of her identity. Dennis steps into the black hole of Joan's craving for attention and purpose with perfectly narcissistic equanimity, happy to let his wife and his mistress fulfill his needs, and hoping he won't be forced to choose. (Anyway, if his wife cared half as much for him as she cares for her patients, Dennis wouldn't need to have this affair.)

As the ensuing triangle of codependency ("love," surely, is not the word for it) grows maddeningly complex, David develops an almost unbearable dramatic tension. Each turn in the plot becomes inevitable because these people do not communicate -- and they don't communicate because they don't or can't care about anyone but themselves. Months pass before Pam learns (by coercion) the name of "the man" Joan is seeing; for a long time Dennis doesn't even know Joan is in therapy; and, because her therapist insists that her own marital status is irrelevant to "the therapeutic process," Joan doesn't even know if Dr. Thompson is married, much less to whom. The reader experiences steadily mounting anxiety, wondering how long this can possibly go on before the characters find each other out. David demonstrates an enviable gift for intensifying suspense as he drives these characters toward what one can only expect will be a shattering revelation. Meanwhile Joan's meticulous preparation for her suicide is exactingly and convincingly described.

This disturbing plot springs from its characters' needs, but the readers also have needs, as does the novel itself. The relentless seriousness of tone cries out for occasional relief through more than the present modicum of humor, which is often ironic and always dry. Although the prose is clean and precise, the action is served up with a clinical detachment, as though the author were sitting in an analyst's chair of his own, calculating and plotting what the characters must do to make this novel work. It's a sort of starvation diet. But there is an even more critical need.

In probing his characters' flaws, David altogether ignores any likable, redeeming qualities they may have -- or perhaps he simply cannot imagine their having such qualities. There is almost no act of generosity or altruism, however small: Xanax and Valium offer the only comfort. Pam tries hard, in her hyperanalytical way, to help her patients and save her marriage, but she is so hard, so cold, and so entirely repressed that it's virtually impossible to care about her. Even if we would like to like them, Pam and the other main characters are portrayed with such unrelieved pessimism that we can't. In this regard, Need is an expert postmortem: we know what ails these characters, but there's no suggestion of a cure.

A novelist has a responsibility, however, to the characters, the work, and the readers to go beyond two dimensions. And if a novel is to be at all true to life it must do more than simply condemn its characters. Not that every novel needs a paragon of virtue. But if novels are to contribute to our understanding of ourselves, they must provide a more compassionate, "holistic" portrait of their principal characters.

Need is a tightly structured novel by a skilled storyteller. The narrative moves at a brisk, steady pace and is held together by an impressive control. David has a fine ear for dialogue and a sure touch for images and actions that convey character and situation. In a glaring, pitiless light, Need dramatizes the earthly hell of the rationalist, spiritless world in which educated, proud, privileged adults imagine themselves capable of "self-improvement" without any ability to reach for anything transcendent that might succor the lame.

What gives this reader hope, for Lawrence David at least, is his strong sense of right and wrong, as revealed in his unflinching depictions of deceit, evasion, and selfishness. But unless David finds a more interior, compassionate way of presenting flawed characters, readers may not care enough for those characters to stay with the book. Such a turn-off could unnecessarily impair what is otherwise a very promising literary career. With greater care for characters and a more patient and searching vision of the mysteries of human being, David and his readers may find that there are not only needs but also great and often unexpected rewards in living, even in anguishing.

Which brings us back to Camus' fundamental philosophical problem: to be or not to be can only be decided by one's capacity to find meaning in a world that may not be as flat as we're apt to think. Lawrence David will have more to say on this question.

Originally published in the December 1994/January 1995 issue of Boston Review

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