Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Down and out in Newport

Allison Lynn, The Exiles (Boston: New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). 336 pages.

Perhaps no famous quotation from literature is more contested than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that there are no second acts in American life. You can add Allison Lynn’s name to the list of those who disagree, although only at the very end of her second novel and only after her characters have done everything in their power to prove Fitzgerald right.

The Exiles is the story of two young unmarried parents who own “nothing except an expensive New York lifestyle.” When the opportunity presents itself to exile themselves from the city, they grab it. A Wall Street broker, Nate Bedecker is offered a job at his firm’s satellite office in Newport, Rhode Island. His girlfriend Emily Latham has already walked away from a job in “experiential advertising” when she became appalled at herself for expending her best creative energies on a sales campaign for a potato chip. Having bought “a ’60s-era faux-Victorian” on a “postage-stamp lot,” they load their baby gear and financial papers into a Jeep Cherokee on the Friday of Columbus Day weekend, and drive the two hundred miles to their real-estate lawyer’s office to sign the final papers and pick up the keys. “They might not have a marriage license, but now they had a kid and a house to bind them,” Emily reflects. “It was the real thing.”

Things get more real when they leave the lawyer’s office to find that the Cherokee has been stolen. Stranded with the eighty-five dollars they have in their wallets, they must fend for themselves until the banks open again on Tuesday after the long holiday weekend. Almost immediately they begin making bad decisions. They cancel their credit cards, for example, before thinking to pay for a hotel room. Even if only temporarily, they find they are exiles from the 21st-century economy. Although they display some ingenuity in navigating the expenses of a strange city, their estrangement is keen. In a souvenir shop, “packed to capacity with nearly indistinguishable tchotchkes,” Emily realizes that there were people in Newport with cash to burn:Emily no longer believed that someday she’d be one of those people herself. As a child in Cambridge, Emily had fantasized about growing up and owning a town house in Boston. In her dreams, the urban castle featured a game room, a screening room for movies, and a minifridge full of Grape Crush. She’d since given up that dream (she didn’t want it all anymore, she just wanted enough to remain consistently in the black) along with so many others. What she got, in return, was Nate.Hardly a ringing endorsement of her relationship to the father of her child! The truth is that Emily is a deeply unhappy woman, less in exile than in isolation—and from no one so much as Nate. Her lack of attachment to him is betrayed by her reluctance to marry him. “She didn’t want to wed just because they had a child,” she tells herself. “She wanted to wed because Nate was her soul mate.” Not that he is a loser, exactly. He is a “middle-feeder,” as Lynn calls him, who “pull[s] in a base-level salary and negligible bonus.” Although he is the son of a famous architect, Nate has little ambition and less interior life. Even his baby son Trevor kicks him at night to get away from him.

Nate and Emily would be unpromising subjects for a novel if Lynn had not knotted her plot so deftly. Both of them arrive in Newport with a secret they are keeping from the other. Emily has stolen an expensive painting by a hot young New York artist from a dinner party at the apartment of rich friends. The theft is merely gossip from the New York life they have left behind—breathless email messages from friends speculating on the identity of the culprit, phone calls from the NYPD asking for interviews—until Nate discovers the painting folded up and hidden in an inside pocket of the baby’s diaper bag. Emily can no more explain why she took it than Hurstwood can explain how he stole ten thousand dollars in Sister Carrie. Forces stronger than either of them prompt the thefts. When she finds the painting in a stack of canvases in her friends' study, Emily thinks:This piece might be worth nothing in a hundred years, but today it could fund nearly anything. Paint slopped on a piece of stretched cotton by an imbecile, yet the person who owned it possessed a slice of power. Power: Emily had so little of it herself that she’d been essentially evicted from Manhattan, the epicenter of power. Here, though, was capital on a canvas. As Emily gazed at the [painting] . . . more than anything, she simply wanted a piece of the power. She simply wanted a taste. She simply wanted a whiff of what fell in everyone else’s lap. She simply wanted.Nate’s secret is less revealing of character, but in an age in which health is confused with morality, it is the more devastating. Both his grandfather and his father were afflicted by Huntington’s disease, an inherited disease that causes the slow degeneration of nerve cells in the brain. There is no cure. Nate has never had himself tested, and knowing that he might be carrying the Huntington’s gene, he fathers a child with Emily without telling her of the chances that Trevor will inherit a grisly death sentence.

If her characters are not particularly admirable (or even likable), Lynn gives you something that is far more interesting. Nate and Emily make a series of choices that will have you shouting at them in frustration. Nate takes the baby and hitchhikes across Narragansett Bay to find his grandfather’s locked-up house. Emily lies to the NYPD about the night on which the painting was stolen. Nate puts the painting back in the diaper bag without saying anything to Emily. She refuses to ask old New York friends for any help, although they keep calling and emailing her. You identify, not with them as persons (limited and defective as they are), but with the decisions they make. You second-guess them. You call out what you would do in their circumstances, as if they could hear you. They drive you batty. If their problems were not real problems—stolen car, stolen art, the prospect of terminal disease—you would turn away from them quickly.

“The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions,” Umberto Eco has said; “he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.” Lynn is one of the few young American novelists to grasp this narrative principle instinctively. In the end, though, she blinks. She likes her characters more than they deserve. She wants them to have the second chapter their bad decisions ought to deprive them of. “They would be all right,” she concludes. “Tomorrow they’d make a fresh start, absent the traumatic evidence of their life before.” But the woman is an art thief! you cry. Surely there must be some moral consequence to her brazen covetousness! Lynn and her characters shrug as the novel closes, however. “Anything is possible,” Lynn writes. And though you suspect that she began The Exiles once she had conceived her characters’ dilemma (but not its resolution), you are willing to forgive Allison Lynn almost anything, including her last few pages, because the first three hundred are ethically mesmerizing in a way that few contemporary fiction is any more.


Unknown said...

Thank you for sharing your thoughts. As I read your final paragraph, I sense that the author as narrator intruded too heavily with her point of view; the better strategy would be less like a 19th century author (i.e., George Eliot comes to mind), and permit the reader his or her own assessment.

Chandra said...