Fiction

Seven variations on a love story

 

Joan Wickersham’s book serves to remind us that life is full of surprises and possibilities.

Joan Wickersham’s new book brings to mind Margaret Atwood’s short story Happy Endings. There, Atwood traces seven variants of affection, focusing on a couple named John and Mary, for whom “(t)he only authentic ending is the one provided here: … John and Mary die. John and Mary die. John and Mary die.”

The point is that “endings are the same however you slice it,” which Wickersham understands as well. That’s why she builds the seven loosely related pieces of fiction here around the amorphous middle, which is ultimately the only thing that life, or narrative, has to offer us.

This is not the first time Wickersham has written a book around a formal conceit; her last effort, the National Book Award-nominated The Suicide Index, examined her father’s suicide by framing it in the form of an index, complete with alphabetical subject heads. It’s a bravura performance, not least because, even as she is developing it, Wickersham has to admit the futility of the construction: “Up until now,” she admits, “I’ve pretty much been sticking to a standard linear way of telling the story of my father’s suicide. I’ve adhered to chronology: first this happened, then that happened. … I’m not going to be able to keep it up.” Such a tension, between order and chaos, between what we can know and what we can never know, gives the work a vivid open-endedness, a sense of life as it is lived.

The News From Spain aspires to a similar sort of interplay, this time involving the possibilities and disappointments of love.

“You meet someone, you fall in love, you marry,” Wickersham observes in the closing pages. “You meet someone, you fall in love, it turns into a disaster. You meet someone, you fall in love, but one of you is married, or both are: you have or don’t have an affair. You meet someone, you fall in love, but you are never quite sure if your feelings are returned.”

What links these seven stories is nothing so simple as character or situation; they are connected by theme. The love they evoke could be damaged, as in the first story, where a married couple, trying to recover from the husband’s infidelity, go to a summer engagement party. It could be filial, as in the second story, where a bookseller named Rebecca finds purpose in caring for her mother, Harriet, or even lost, as in the magnificent central story, about a paralyzed former dancer whose husband is on tour with his dance troupe, including the younger dancer with whom he has taken up.

What distinguishes the book’s best narratives is their openness, their sense that life always surprises us, even when we expect it will. “A love story — your own or anyone else’s — is interior, hidden,” Wickersham warns. “It can never be accurately reported, only imagined, it is all dreams and invention. It’s guesswork.”

That’s a gutsy thing to acknowledge in a book that is itself an expression of guesswork, a series of roads both taken and not. “Already Rebecca can tell the story two ways,” Wickersham writes about the start of a relationship, and the same is true of the collection as a whole. And yet, what anchors the best parts of The News From Spain is their inevitability, the idea that out of all the possibilities, there is no other way to go.

Some narratives feel contrived, a series of stunts that show their seams. Still, that’s the danger of building a book around a concept: Sometimes the construct overwhelms the material.

And when Wickersham writes, as she does in the final story, that “(s)ome of this is fiction and some isn’t,” it opens up another set of layers in which the final variation, perhaps, is a variation on life.

David Ulin reviewed this book for The Los Angeles Times.

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