on The Soul Thief, a novel by Charles Baxter (Pantheon)

“A great deal of nonsense is written about characters in fiction – from those who believe too much in character and from those who believe too little,” writes James Woods in How Fiction Works, to be published in the U.S. later this year. “My own taste tends towards the sketchier fictional personage, whose lacunae and omissions tease us, provoke us to wade in their deep shallows.” Nathaniel Mason, the narrator of Charles Baxter’s fifth novel The Soul Thief, easily qualifies as sketchy. In a brief introduction, he fixes his attention on Jerome Coolberg, his former graduate school antagonist and “boy genius.” Then, he signals the reader with hints about what to anticipate. “Here, I have to perform a tricky maneuver, because I am implicated in everything that happened. The maneuver’s logic may become clear before my story is over. I must turn myself into a ‘he’ and give myself a bland Anglo-Saxon Protestant name. Any one of them will do as long as the name recedes into a kind of anonymity.” And so, we’ll track the plot to discover “everything that happened.” We’ll probe the narrator to uncover the reason for his anonymity. We’ll watch for “the maneuver’s logic” to reveal itself.

soulthief.jpgThe first part of the novel takes place in Buffalo, beginning with Mason and Theresa, a grad student “accessorized with Soviet medals.” The narrator’s satirical tone dominates; he is not so anonymous after all. “This is the epoch of bare feet in public life,” he says. The pair has met for the first time on their separate ways to a party. Theresa suggests they arrive soaked by the rain. Mason complies and falls in love. “The party carries with it a mood of heady desperation held in check by the usual energies of youth,” says the narrator. The beery talk about Joseph Conrad and unwritten “hypothesis music” annoys Mason, so perhaps the narrator’s tone runs in parallel with the protagonist’s mood. Just before we encounter the glib Coolberg, quipping, drawing people toward him, we hear him described by a guy named Rimjsky: “He’s in some kind of Artaudian condition where all the ideas are unoriginated and unsourced; that's how he can claim anybody else’s ideas as his own. Really all he wants to do is acquire everyone’s inner life.”

Soon Coolberg makes Mason’s life intolerable. He interferes with Mason’s pursuit of Theresa. He pays a burglar to steal Mason’s belongings from his apartment (though in the first encounter between burglar and victim, Mason interrupts the heist and ultimately makes the intruder a cup of coffee). Meanwhile, Mason develops another love interest in Jamie, a lesbian sculptor, having met her at the Allentown Artists’ & Culinary Alliance where they cook food for street people. “He knows about himself that all his charitable deeds are, at base, selfish,” but his self-knowledge doesn’t range beyond a kind of skepticism. The narrator seems to agree: “Life is a series of anticlimaxes until the last one,” a bland observation. Narrator and protagonist share an emotional and intellectual dullness, for all of their familiarity with cultural references (Mason reads Norman O. Brown’s Love’s Body). Coolberg turns the screw tighter by telling Jamie things about himself that are actually facts lifted from Mason’s life. The effect on Mason is profound and physical: “He feels cold sweat breaking out on his forehead … His stomach has been seized with a sudden twist of electric current. He is afraid that he may be having a heart attack. A metaphysical nausea instantly converts into physical nausea, and he leans over the toilet bowl, staring downward.” Shortly thereafter, Mason breaks down completely after Coolberg’s next monstrous act (alleged or actual).

But why such an extreme reaction? Just who is Mason anyway? We’re carried along by the telling, but both narrator and character seem increasingly opaque. Mason appears to exist, even in his attitude to his own demise, as a foil – not just a victim of Coolberg, but of the invasive, determining process Coolberg sets in motion. I reacted similarly to John Fowles’ treatment of Charles Smithson, the main character of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, who haplessly commits whatever the narrator-as-knowing-puppeteer wants him to. There, the unnamed narrator says of Smithson that “he was not … essentially a frivolous young man … You will see that Charles set his sights high. Intelligent idlers always have, in order to justify their idleness to their intelligence. He had, in short, all the Byronic ennui with neither of the Byronic outlets: genius and adultery.” Mason functions more or less the same way, buffeted around by greater forces, a plaything. But why is he portraying himself this way? Is he aware that he is doing so?

Some reviewers have said that this novel is about identity theft and the provisional nature of identity. Mason’s very occasional remarks on the topic may lead in this direction. After he learns of Coolberg’s identity theft, the Mason-narrator says, “Every identity consists of a pile of moldering personal clichés given sentimental value by the fact that someone owns them. The fallacy of the unique! A rubbish heap of personal data, anybody’s autobiography. You can’t sell it or trade it. Besides, everyone has an autobiography, the principle of inflation thereby causing each one to be worthless.” (But this isn’t the attitude of someone who vomits when his identity is tampered with – so what gives?)

I think The Soul Thiefis about novel-writing, but it takes the reader until the very end to grasp the opportunity to see it this way. Meanwhile, we credulously follow Mason in the book’s second half, flying to LA (simply because he’s been asked to) to meet Coolberg many years later. Mason is now a husband, father, wage-earner. His wife, Laura, is equally nondescript. "Even though I don't think about that time period often anymore," says Mason, after going on at length about his traumatic experience in Buffalo, "it accompanies me. My soul was mortgaged. I paid it off through regularity, routine, and hard work, until it was mine again." His perception is credible enough, but something in his make-up (or in how the Mason-narrator regards and treats him -- punishes him? for what?) keeps Mason on the surface of things. Has Charles Baxter lost control of his protagonmist? Is my own identity -- as a capable, interpreting reader -- secure?

The “maneuver’s logic” clarifies in the final pages. James Marcus, writing in the LA Times, notes that Baxter’s most popular novel, The Feast of Love, “is a work of stealth modernism.” So is The Soul Thief. The novelist manipulates the lives in his memory, makes them suffer the process of appearing to yield coherence, which involves harshness, heartlessness, deception, and a chic disregard for their souls.

In her New York Times Book Review piece on this book, Liesl Schillinger writes, “Why Coolberg would bother to fixate on a man as tepid as Mason is the book’s enduring mystery.” But Coolberg has an answer for that question: “You went around with the expression on your face as if you understood each and every one of my actions, as if you understood everything and accepted all of it … that expression appeared to comprehend everything that anybody could present to it.” This, of course, is what the novelist perpetrates on the reader: the persuasion of one who pretends to understand completely his creation, which in turn requires his creative treachery. Coolberg, now the host of an NPR program called “American Evenings” wherein he provokes ordinary people to yield meaningful narratives with pathos, is a novelist-in-the-making.

The Soul Thief is fun to read, pitted with traps and hazards, enticing in its draw, and in the end, suddenly multi-dimensional.

[Published 2/12/08, 210 pp., $20.00]