Despair, one of Emily Dickinson’s cherished words, is also one that is easily applied to Robert Steiner’s Negative Space. It is a short novel consisting of long paragraphs, but these blocks of text contain a fine music: a man’s summation of the night his wife of 20 years left him for another man. This sets off a maelstrom of thoughts in the unnamed narrator’s mind as he contemplates love and desire’s shiftings, as well as his wife’s highly stimulating body, a body soon to disappear.
The novel at times takes on the aspect of a philosophical inquiry. In this harrowing tract on a slippery emotion, the narrator continually plunges into the backwaters of reasoning:
Her confession devastated me because it meant she was even less lovable than I had thought, less than I had come to accept, less lovable than I was lovable. I am not lovable, but I realized…that I could not have remained lovable living with someone, for twenty years, who is not.
Here and throughout, the narrator speaks of love like it is a worn phenomenon—that though it encompasses all, it cannot be trusted. The repetition of the word “lovable” drowns out any love that might have ever existed, because all lovability has been compromised.
That this book is set in a quiet country house in France, a house “deprived of sound as an unlit room at midnight is deprived of light, the unlit room about which the philosopher asks if the roses in it are still red,” accentuates the carnality spoken of, the mood of new desire and the mood for mourning desire in memories of his wife’s body: “the caramel volutes of her exposed labia.”
Though the narrator spends a great deal of time surmising about the woman he loves in a future relationship with another man, he also plumbs himself and his own trappings in bouts of rigorous Shakespearean self-inquiry:
As with an estranged world becoming reality and the darkest darkness the only darkness, the more I lose of myself as I have known myself, the less I will seem nonexistent, the less surrounded by nothing, the less nowhere, because truth is never nothing.
The repetition and alliteration of this passage underscores the plain providence all jilted spouses have to suffer. The double negative of “never nothing” fits nicely into the “negative space” of the title—a space the narrator guards and clutches, and a space the reader must accept in its claustrophobic hold on the reality of the moment, for the wife as well as the narrator.
Ultimately this quasi-philosophical tract again and again returns to despairing of a future without “the woman I love.” The man is still alive, but as he predicted, his world has ended; he quietly inhabits a country house, staring at objects, watching olive trees sway, and waiting for time to pass. There is nothing heroic or resolute about this future.