on Shelter In Place, a novel by Alexander Maksik (Europa Editions)
In a brief essay on Eudora Welty’s collection The Bride of the Innisfallen, Peter Orner asserts that “The Burning” “is the story that comes closest to failure, and so the writer loves it all the more.” When a writer wades into the making with unknowingness, the outcome is in doubt. A residue of obliviousness remains in the finished work making it all the more beloved. “There is no experiment without uncertainty,” says Toby Litt. Most literary fictioners will tell you I didn’t know where the writing would go, but they are mendacious. As Litt says, most lit-fic is just “Pin the Tail on the Donkey without being spun round and round, and without the blindfold.”
Alexander Maksik’s latest novel, Shelter In Place, strikes me as both the riskiest and most gratifying of his three books. Its nervy daring illustrates how restrictions enable freedom for the writer – and how literary art may result from overcoming a set of chosen impediments.
Maksik’s narrator is forty-something, bi-polar Joe Marsh who lives alone on a San Juan island off Seattle. The run-time of his story is roughly 18 months during which he attempts to devise a shape for what he has experienced and continues to feel and believe (“I’m trying here to find some kind of order”). Two months earlier, his longtime companion, Tess Wolff, abandoned him. Twenty years previously in 1991, his mother killed a man with a hammer after witnessing him slap his son and punch his wife in a parking lot. Joe’s mother was sentenced to a long term in a penitentiary. His father moved to live nearby the prison in White Pine, 150 miles south of Seattle. Joe believes he shares “a sickening, narcotic feeling of terrible weight” with his adored mother, and an honorable but feckless bafflement with his lonely father. Tess and Joe also move to White Pine where they work shifts in a bar, waitress and bartender.
In Shelter In Place, everything has already happened, yet everything in the speaker seems pending. This is a novel with some of the aspects of a short story – time is compressed, there is no long view resulting from thoughtful analysis. Joe doesn’t achieve anything though the telling, his comprehension isn’t growing, and his conclusions may be suspect. How much of the narrative might be attributed to the “high” end of his bi-polarity? Joe says, “Days like this I see all the threads, each square-knotted to a different finger, the whole story, my whole life, each a red thread.” But if everything is so clearly perceived, what is the motive for telling?
The rhythms of Joe's phrasing are as significant as the “plot” of his story. Maksik parcels out the narrative in short chapters with sentences that often break down into fragments. Recalled events matter; Joe relates them with a shrewd economy. Bar life is rendered expertly. Maksik works all of the expected elements of prose fiction at a capacity attuned perfectly to the psychological issues and hurdles embedded in Joe Marsh.
Family psychodynamics, intimacy with a spirited woman, the oppressiveness of sudden bleakness and suspicious highs, the disturbing awareness of violence against women – all of this simmers in Joe’s mind. He has acute intuitions about people, but he is built for avowals, not nuanced statement. His earnestness and habit of reiterating verge on annoyance. His wisdom is streaked with inertia. He says, in one of his grand summations, “Everything that lasts is invention followed by tenacious faith.” One doesn’t quite know whether to accept, question or spurn his insights. Why did Tess leave him unless he had failed her in some way?
Joe’s most endearing quality is his innocence – surely this and his steadfast presence are what Tess had been drawn to. He had met her, an independent, confident, pleasure seeking young woman, during an episode of manic enthusiasm. His affections stuck and so did hers. They ultimately went to Seattle and owned two bars, then cashed out nicely and moved to the San Juans. And he loves her. There is no question.
In sum, Joe Marsh wants to get a grip on his life – but is instead a gripee. Setting out to make literary art out of these restrictions, Maksik has aligned himself intuitively with his shaky and desperate narrator – and is just as close as Joe to utterly failing. The writer is sacrificing almost everything to an aura of contingency. Will there be, in the end, a salvaging shape within the raw material of this character? Or is Joe Marsh fated to repeat the facts over and over?
I was puzzled by David Vann’s tin-eared review of this novel in the New York Times. “It’s a shame he has drunk the postmodernist Kool-Aid,” he said. That officious remark cracks me up – and says more about Vann than Maksik who has done nothing more egregious than to stray (and really, not that far on the avant-garde scale) from conventional novel-making. It is simply a question of how much of his own bewilderment the writer is willing to plumb, how much empathy he can expend, and how close to failure he is willing to tread.
[Published September 13, 2016. 304 pages, $18.00 paperback]