CIRCLE SQUAREDby Jim Feast
In his striking new novel Passes Through, Rob Stephenson addresses the problem of depicting stasis in a narrative (i.e., a moving) form. The key to doing this successfully, as Stephenson does, is to make it not only convincing but engaging. [An excerpt from Passes Through appeared in the March Rail.]
The use of static narratives is widespread in recent American fiction. Lethem’s Chronic City, for example, begins with the hero making a new friend, Perkus Tooth, who introduces him to conspiracy theories, a girlfriend and a vivid life. Tooth dies, the hero loses his girlfriend, and everything else he had that was edgy and glamorous, returning him to square (or page) one. This is one way to build a static situation while allowing for a seemingly eventful plot; turn the narrative arc into a circle.
Stephenson’s method is different but equally absorbing. He describes the love relation between his protagonist and another man. However, this is not your usual gay love story with a beginning (the couple meets in some unexpected and charming way), middle (they learn each other’s secrets and deepen their intimacy), and end (a wild and tempestuous breakup, sparked by an infidelity). Instead, one gets a whole novel in medias res. This is to say, everything in the book seems drawn from the middle of the affair: little tiffs, slighting observations, occasional graphic descriptions of sex acts (often ones that involve S-and-M), and accounts of attending cultural activities together. This is framed by the narrator’s own (often fractured) reflections on writing and his own, hesitant self-construction.
So, in place of seeing the development of a relationship, the reader finds a hyper-immediacy, an excruciatingly delicate presentation of moments in the relationship, none of which lead anywhere since they are not linked to any sort of interpersonal trajectory. Stephenson presents these descriptions–this is what makes the novel so good–in a rumpled, fastidious, catty, scrupulously observant language, which is always compelling. The speaker can be cutting in describing his beloved: “I liked him better when he was drunk. He came to life. I never knew whose.” He is wryly observant about the current world situation: “The state just runs around putting swords into the hands of madmen, while the peasants are self-helping themselves to death.” He can also be poignantly self-aware: “The rain keeps me indoors. My thoughts run sideways when I’m alone. In and out of the same loops. Expanding the pool from which codes are constructed.” What he does with the greatest clarity, though, is capture fleeting glimpses of a relationship in a few, cuffed lines: “He maintains a certain remove, but stays in the realm of the personal. An emphasis on burial. The city does that to you. After a long time there is evidence of unspoken things. He says goodbye in silence.”
This last element of Stephenson’s writing, his ability to isolate microstructures of feelings within relationships, is the most significant hallmark of his craft. These microstructures are the ones that most writers braid together into the bigger emotions of rage, love and so on, but here they are delicately separated into their components so the roots of feeling are laid bare. It demands a patient and exquisite sensibility to do this.
In the April Rail fiction section, Anna Mockler has a piece about the dissolution of a relationship presented by an omniscient, intrusive narrator who keeps insisting this type of breakup has happened thousands of times before, always the same way. By stressing this, the narrator takes much of the forward momentum out of the story by retelling what has happened repeatedly. The effect is to satirize the hapless participants in the dissolution, who mistakenly think what they are feeling and doing has some claim to originality.
Stephenson, with a similar aim of reducing narrative momentum, creates almost the opposite effect in how readers will view his lovers. At times grungy, at times elegant, the couple has its circumscribed, bobbing everyday moments rendered with such heightened precision, and an eye for both detail and language, so that they seem, for just that instant, totally and irretrievably new.