Thursday, August 16, 2012


I've often referred to Stewart O'Nan's novel A Prayer for the Dying, telling my students it's the one "serious" book I know that uses second-person narration, the "you" being the novel's major character while also, by implication, the reader. ("Choose Your Own Adventure" stories present us with the "non-serious" example, the "you" there being expressly the reader-as-protagonist.) Students think it would be strange to read such narration for the duration of a novel, but my experience was that, after the initial surprise, you pretty quickly slip into seeing the novel as simply possessing a third-person limited narrator, the "you" being a grammatical hiccup that is actually the equivalent of he/him. I suppose that book's plot twist (the character is lying to himself about something) seems more disturbing because there's the implication that you, not only the protagonist, have failed to perceive something you should have perceived, but I don't know that the surprise would have been less effective in the usual narrative style, and in fact I wouldn't say there's anything thematic or insightful achieved by O'Nan's ploy. Still, I enjoyed the novel and remembered it.

I came to The Night Country because, in the wake of Ray Bradbury's death, it was mentioned as an homage to Bradbury (to whom it's dedicated). For most of the novel, I couldn't see that, but at the end, I suppose one is meant to recognize how the plot is a long-playing variation on Bradbury's classic short story "The Crowd." (A man realizes through newspaper photograph—and later first-hand observation—that accident victims are surrounded by the same people forming an instant crowd; the crowd, it turns out, consists of people who died in previous accidents. Obviously, the protagonist can't be allowed to live with this information.)

The plot of the novel is this: One year ago, on Halloween, five high school kids drove into a tree; three died—Chris called Toe, Danielle, and Marco, who narrates—and two lived—Kyle, whose head injuries have turned him into an infantile version of himself, and Tim. It's clear from early on that Tim means to reenact the events of that day, including the crash, finishing off himself and Kyle. The other major character (Kyle's mother has a minor but important role, but is a bystander to the key events) is Brooks, a police officer who carries around a load of guilt about the events of that day. It's also made clear early on that Brooks's guilt, which has led to the breakup of his marriage and his general uselessness as a police officer, is justified; we're not, at first, told explicitly what he did that makes him culpable, but enough hints are dropped that the type of thing he did—pursuing the kids' vehicle in such a way to cause the accident—is obvious, making the exact details, when they arrive, underwhelming.

Much like A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving, The Night Country intentionally telegraphs its ending and then, largely, doesn't veer from its foreordained outcome. Irving's novel frustrated me for many reasons, but I found the plot structure especially frustrating, as I kept expecting Irving to twist the story in some way that would render the outcome simultaneously inevitable yet surprising, true to what had been predicted while playfully out-of-alignment. Instead, it all occurred just as had been foretold. The Night Country suffers from the same problem, though O'Nan tries to make the journey more suspenseful by withholding the precise details. Less than halfway through the book, I realized it wasn't compounding events and observations in a meaningful way, but I plowed ahead, hopeful for the conclusion.

Irving's novel, though, does give us some engaging characters, even if some of them aren't terribly credible. O'Nan's characters are as jammed into their trajectory as the plot; in fact, saying they have a "trajectory" beyond the plot is misleading. Every character is stuck, the dead as well as the living. No one has any interest or design outside the accident; it has consumed everyone. I suppose that's a point O'Nan wants to make, but reading about characters who can't develop and who seem either planless or locked into plans that rise out of despair is not interesting or moving. This could work for a short story, and in fact the whole plot could have been dispensed with much more quickly, since nothing much happens—which is one of the book's ideas. In The Plague, Camus painted characters who are stuck in repetitious lives, but they don't see themselves that way, and the plot and prose pull us through that novel; O'Nan's novel simply fails to thrive. It's hard to even see what aspect of it was satisfying for the novelist, since, once he's established his characters and their situations, the story is essentially done. After the opening, it's an exercise.

The novel seems to be embarking into interesting storytelling territory by giving us a dead narrator who tends to speak collectively, including his friends in an authorial "we." But that conceit falls away pretty fast once the dead characters differentiate themselves; unfortunately, we learn little about any of these ghosts beyond the first and final facts. The narrator is the least well-defined character in the novel. That's a problem. Why was he chosen to tell this story? All of the ghosts are helpless, unable to truly alter what's going to happen, but they do have some minor talent at redirecting people's attentions or making animals run into their paths. (Mostly they're hauled around by whomever is thinking about them at the time.) There's some panic when they realize that Kyle, who isn't dead, nonetheless has a ghostly, "real" self who shows up but doesn't interact with them. This true Kyle, evidently the aspect of him that has died, evinces the ability to move objects, but this plot element, introduced as possibly altering events, has no payoff. The end, too, which should produce a few more ghosts, seems not to, so the climax doesn't result in much of a denouement. You're just done. Then there's a Slaughterhouse-Five ripoff in which history is made beautiful by being rewound, but it seems tacked on rather than integral.

Severely disappointing.

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