Book Reviews: Valentine and
Four Walls Eight Windows, $18 (cloth)
love is a vital theme in modern fiction and its most powerful
and enduring explorations—Tolstoy and Proust, Fitzgerald
and Nabokov—have been in novels of broad thematic scope.
Anna Karenina contrasts the universe of healthy, enduring
love between Kitty and Levin with that of the dark, compulsive
relationship between Anna and Vronsky. Proust connected his theme
of obsession to his vision of time, memory, art, and ultimately
personal transcendence. And The Great Gatsby and Lolita
present strong evocations and indictments of American society
(and have much to say as well about time, memory and art). Each
of these novels is also written in beautifully disciplined prose
that provides a necessary contrast to the sometimes out-of-control
emotions it describes. As these modern masters well understood,
to write exclusively about any obsession—including obsessive
love—is to describe a narrow and repetitive world.
Like his forebears, Lucius Shepard
begins his story of obsessive love on a promisingly broad note.
"There are countries that exist only for a matter of days, sometimes
only for hours, not lasting long enough to be named or even recognized
for what they are by their temporary citizenry," states the narrator
in the opening passages of Valentine. "Often they are created
by fog banks, hurricanes, blizzards, by any force of nature with
the power to isolate; on other occasions they are brought into
being by incidences of cosmic weather, shifts in dimensionality
and the like, events to which many of us in our stubborn rationality
refuse to subscribe."
This striking opening sounds like
an invitation to enter a fictive universe as strange and exotic
as Calvino's or Borges'. And Shepard's story progresses with a
masterful mixture of evocative, musical prose styles:
Lights like stars were scattered
throughout the green town, and boats from the foggy west rode
heavy swells in toward shore. The swaying of the palm fronds seemed
to express a weary eloquence, like the wobbly feelers of ancient
insect philosophers arguing in whispers over an abstruse point.
Shepard has a gift for combining
lyrical description with a colloquial voice:
A middling surf tumbled in from
the fog bank. Reddish brown piles of seaweed littered the beach,
humped like bodies of the drowned beneath tattered shrouds. Seagulls
keened and skied, pelicans bobbed on the swells, sandpipers left
sharp three-toed tracks along the tidal margin. But any notion
of nature in harmony took a hit when you factored in the derelict
sleeping it off close to the seawall.
Precise and poetic, his prose itself
suffices to keep us entertained throughout this diminutive novel.
But beyond his fine writing, Shepard's
story of obsessive love never really finds itself in the wider
universe of Borgesian meaning he promises. The opening thesis
is explored only fleetingly and tentatively, then virtually forgotten,
and ultimately Shepard allows his novel to lapse into a somewhat
prosaic love story.
Returning from a journalistic assignment
in South Florida, Russell, the novel's narrator, is waylaid by
a hurricane alert in the coastal town of Piersall. He checks into
a hotel to wait out the storm, and there he meets Kay, an ex-lover
whom he has not seen for six years. After some initial awkwardness,
soon Russell and Kay are making love—something they do frequently
during their few days together waiting for the storm alert to
subside. Besides having sex, they devote a lot of time to having
uninspired conversations about their relationship, walking through
the town, going to a restaurant and a movie, and agonizing over
the fact that they still love each other but Kay can't bring herself
to leave her husband.
The absence of any wider theme
makes it hard to sustain an interest in the story. Despite his
frequent declarations of love, the only qualities Russell seems
to admire in Kay are her beauty, her sexuality, and her unobtainability.
Kay, a tenured professor, frequently declares her love for Russell
too. But despite all her highly charged sexuality, she's a rather
pallid character with predictable sensibilities. The two are apparently
well-suited to each other—they enjoy voracious lovemaking,
which always works out to the ultimate degree of satisfaction—but
Kay is determined to stay with her husband (although we don't
know why, because he never emerges as a character in his own right).
Outside the claustrophobic world
of Russell and Kay's lovemaking and mutual analysis, the book
contains little else beyond a few intriguing but minor encounters
with the town's eccentric residents and with a strange pinball
machine and miniature golf course. Each of these scenes, though
brief, is subtly haunting or comical and provides welcome relief.
Here is a funny and virtuoso description of Russell encountering
a couple at the Denny's in Piersall.
Dad was about five-foot-eight of
brown-haired game show loser, a sausage-eating mutt in his mid-thirties,
growing dewlaps and a gut, dressed in shorts and a Six Flags Over
Georgia T-shirt. Mom's face was sharper than his—a feral,
lipstick-wearing, twitchy-eyed, drab little fox. She was church-on-Sunday
pre-spinster mean and money smart. He was a Dork Junior College
grad with an enviable collection of NFL memorabilia and deep concerns
about the local building code in their hometown of Grub's Nest,
Missouri. Their offspring, wearing a dark brown jumpsuit, resembled
a chocolate truffle with hands and feet. They were so fucking
low-rent-six-pack-family-values-porcelain-dog America, I had a
mind to toast them with a glass of buttermilk and a handful of
Passages like that tantalize us
about what Valentine could have been had it ventured further
into the world. But these scenes, however entertaining, remain
largely undeveloped, and fall short of a cumulative and convincing
whole. The book is dominated by the sometimes painfully self-conscious
interactions of Russell and Kay and by dialogue that can be banal:
"You seem to think it's just you, that it was only hard for you.
Leaving you…it was like being ripped apart."
Toward the end of Valentine,
in one of the intermittently interesting exchanges that do occur
between the lovers, Russell lists all the strange things that
he has seen or that have happened to him in town. He makes "a
thin case for Piersall being a town populated by common folk and
a number of imposters, the site of an alien incursion or perhaps
a secret government experiment," and concludes that "people are
so accustomed to seeing what they think they see, they tend to
demystify anything remarkable. God knows what's actually going
on. We're trapped in a vast conspiracy all our lives, and we never
have a clue even though it's happening right in front of us."
This is an appealing and, in a
sense, consoling idea but the book's events don't justify it.
* * *
As in Valentine, the narrator
of David Gilmour's Sparrow Nights (the sophisticated French
professor Darius Halloway) is sexually obsessed with his lover
and must also try to overcome a major obstacle keeping them apart.
The obstacle is their difference in age: Emma Carpenter is nearly
thirty years his junior. Like Shepard, Gilmour (whose previous
novel Lost Between Houses was a bestseller in Canada) is
a brilliant stylist capable of an extraordinary range of effects.
But the similarities end there. Gilmour takes a fundamentally
different approach to storytelling. In Valentine, Shepard
employs a minimalist technique and limits his focus to essentially
two characters with very little plot or narrative movement. Like
a Phillip Glass composition, the story evolves slowly through
repetition and subtle variation. Gilmour's music is more like
a Verdi opera or Mahler symphony, with a dramatic collision of
opposite forces—rage and compassion, murder and love. His
prose master is Proust, filtered through Nabokov, Céline,
and Dostoevsky. Indeed, Darius Halloway often sounds like one
of the many descendants of Dostoevsky's Underground Man. Accordingly,
Gilmour's narrator is more self-aware than Shepard's—more
alienated from the world, yet more intensely engaged with it.
His secondary characters are also much more compelling. Although
Emma exists only as a memory in Darius' mind after the first thirty
pages, she is still a more distinctive character than Kay.
Of course, Gilmour's intentions
are different from Shepard's. Sparrow Nights is much less
a fable and far more a full-bodied novel than Valentine.
We get a much richer sense of Darius's job, see how he interacts
with a variety of people and circumstances, and even learn some
of his wide-ranging literary opinions. Almost immediately we see
that this novel will be about more than a romantic fixation; it
will involve a broader vision of the world through which Darius
is compelled to move.
But Gilmour's novel is not simply
more detailed than Shepard's, it is deeper. His narrator sees
through himself and his relationship with Emma, in spite of his
suffering over her, rather than being obsessively limited by it:
Love mattered. Or was it love?
No, probably not. For when Emma left I wanted her dead. How loving
was that? (Here I smiled.) No, not murdered, not that. But a sad
accident perhaps, where afterwards I might doff my hat, my eyes
watering, and say, yes, how dreadful, such a fine young woman.
If anything, Darius is overly self-aware
and like Dostoevsky's Underground Man, is forced to ask himself
if a man of perception can possibly respect himself at all.
Darius becomes obsessed with Emma
almost immediately upon meeting her. He lives with her for about
a year and a half, loses her, and finds that he can't stop thinking
He soon finds that he is unable
to sleep, a condition exacerbated by the relentless barking of
some neighborhood dogs. When more conventional means to control
them fails, he devises an elaborate revenge which culminates in
his poisoning the dogs. Unfortunately, neither his anger nor his
self-destructive behavior ends there. He becomes involved with
a massage parlor worker and her menacing boss. The results are
harrowing. Again he becomes obsessed with revenge, and only after
enacting it can he find relief from Emma and both sleep and love
This is, in essence, a story about
a man exorcising his obsession through vengeance, albeit displaced
vengeance. Sparrow Nights is in a sense a murder mystery,
but as in Crime and Punishment, the mystery isn't who did
it but why, and what will happen to him after committing the murder.
Here Gilmour's answer is complex and crowds in too many events,
not all of which are fully believable. Yet this is a small flaw.
His great accomplishment is to have created a convincing, often
riveting protagonist who asks some important questions about the
world. Like Céline, Gilmour has a gift for posing such questions
and answering them in aphorisms and other striking phrases: "Pain
as they say, is life's only real instructor." "A great thing formality.
What those pampered little prickweeds in the sixties never understood—spoilt,
parasitic bottom-lickers that they were—was that in many
cases, and certainly when it comes to people expressing their
real feelings, repression is a good thing." "It is a great
skill of the psychopathic, I reflected, to make the offended party
At the end of the novel, Darius
encounters Raissa, the love of his youth, and at last exchanges
obsession for a kind of mournful self-knowledge:
I didn't sit back down until she
had disappeared from the doorway, this gray-haired woman who for
a matter of months had lain in my bed and talked to me in the
dark. We had known each other's bodies when they were young. How
precious that was—for we held an image of each other which
no one else in the world did, and when we died, that picture would
exist no more.
With Sparrow Nights, David
Gilmour joins the list of inspired modern monologists that begins
with Dostoevsky and includes Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard,
and Céline. Although Gilmour has a fine gift for realism,
what Gide said of Céline is also finally true of Gilmour's
Sparrow Nights: "It is not reality that he paints, but
the hallucination that reality provokes." <
Richard Burgin's ten books include Ghost Quartet
and The Spirit Returns. He is professor of communication
and English at Saint Louis University, where he edits Boulevard.
in the Summer 2002 issue of Boston