Love Among the Ruins
W. W. Norton & Company, $24.95 (cloth)
Several years ago George Steiner wrote that the novel—by which he meant The Novel—is a sad, sterile thing here in the West, that true masterpieces can only find their burning fountainhead in totalitarianism, oppression, and fear. Sven Birkerts has wondered how the contemporary novel can hope to say anything meaningful to citizens who spend the majority of their days dashing off unpunctuated e-mail. Reading critics like Harold Bloom, who speaks of literature as a kind of sack race, or the peerless James Wood, for whom literature sometimes seems an existential joust with godlessness, one wonders what kind of contemporary novel could hope to meet such unforgiving demands for greatness. As it happens, very few. "The best," as Voltaire said, "is the enemy of the good."
Of course, this is perfectly insane. Books, for whatever reason, are casually, repeatedly vulnerable to canon-breaking litmus tests virtually no other form of art is forced to endure. Very few of us would begrudge a merely good film—or even a very bad one—for the offense of stealing away two hours' time. Or, to expand this way of thinking beyond art's relative quietude, do basketball fans question the right to exist of the final two (no doubt very good) players on the bench of the Philadelphia 76ers? Even if our demands for unqualified, sweeping greatness are simply a product of our millennial derangement, no form of art has been taxed more beneath its poll than the contemporary domestic novel. In some ways, this is understandable: literature, one might as well admit, does seem less important today than it was to previous generations, but dismissing the necessary majority of it not interested in canonical transfiguration will hardly reverse that sad process. Good domestic novels, but especially very good domestic novels, helpfully remind us that broadly felt consequence does not always equal literary success, and that literary success does not automatically mean broadly felt consequence. They remind us that profundity is most often an intensely private phenomenon.
This is all by way of opening discussion of Robert Clark's third novel, Love Among the Ruins, a story about two teenagers who meet in the "war summer" of 1968 and fall in love. Clark is the author of two previous works of fiction, Mr. White's Confession(1999) and In the Deep Midwinter (1998), a lovely domestic novel of the upper Midwest. Clark returns to the American steppes inLove Among the Ruins, though its predecessor's lyrical ruminations upon landscape and meteorology have been largely dispatched. Instead, Clark moves confidently into the dark interior of human emotion, reserving almost entirely his unflashy descriptive gifts to relate the tremors and longing of his five protagonists.
The most prominent are William Lowry and Emily Byrne, both of whom live in "a medium-sized city of no particular account." William is seventeen, an unhappy young man who inhabits an apartment with his mother and seethes with apprehension over the draft, the system, the future. Emily is a young-looking fifteen, a devout Catholic girl who lives with her parents in an unstifling dream of middle-class fulfillment. (Love Among the Ruins's title is not its only Walker Percyish element, as the novel is haunted by Percy's quietly tortured Catholicism.) The novel opens with William sending Emily a shy, exploratory mash note. She responds, inviting him to telephone her. This is not, one might gather, the most gripping way to begin a novel, and one senses that Clark is almost masochistically inviting the sort of tolerant dismissal that plagues novels of this sort. But Clark's patient, observant narration very quickly develops tremendous power, and soon the reader is awaiting William's phone call to Emily with as much ferocious anticipation as…well, a teenage girl with a crush. Clark filigrees the novel with small, wonderful insights that trigger often painful reminders of first love's startling emotional brinkmanship. Here is Emily's best friend on the politics of calling a boy: "You might think you want to call him, and you might even think he wants you to call him, and he might even think he'd like you to. But really, he doesn't want you to—not if he thought about it."
Soon William and Emily are dating, and then quite a lot more than dating, and in constructing their relationship Clark does not misstep. When Emily, a third of the way into the novel, kneels beside her bed to conduct her evening prayer, a prayer "which now included the health and safety of William," the effect is shattering.But Clark, while always respectful of William and Emily's feelings, also displays a bracing and much needed skepticism about the heart's propulsive urges toward love: as Emily decides there is "something a little weird" about William (though she enjoys "whatever this thing was that was a little weird about him"), William is reckoning that "since Emily had a job, he ought to have a job." Unlike the novel with which Love Among the Ruins is fated to be compared, Scott Spencer's brilliant Endless Love, one never feels that Clark is wholly approving of the growing tenaciousness of William and Emily's relationship. In fact, it sometimes seems to make him a little sad, even gently scornful:
William in turn became less vague and more acute in Emily's mind, his opinions more grounded.…That was doubtless because many of them were increasingly Emily's opinions.
It would be difficult in so limited a space to impart a full sense of the beauty and concealed sophistication of Love Among the Ruins.In their exquisite awkwardness, their halting accumulation of love's inexplicable core, William and Emily cease, somehow, to seem fictional, a magic confluence that the characters in much domestic fiction can by their paradoxical familiarity never fully achieve. One of the novel's most moving and, one imagines, artistically difficult moments is Emily's reading of William's (bad) poetry. It takes real skill to replicate appropriately awful high-school verse without appearing to make sport of its imaginary author, but Clark manages it expertly. Clark also allows William and Emily some fairly explicit lovemaking, and it is equally to his credit that, given his characters' ages, these scenes do not come off as lurid. This is notThe Blue Lagoon. Placing them naked before a mirror, Clark notes that "William is not that handsome and Emily is not that pretty," a moment of narrative candor that inspires trust in Clark.
As the novel progresses, William's anxiety grows. He fears the coming of some "shaggy and half-formed" American totalitarian state, and convinces Emily that their only recourse is an old-fashioned running-away-from-home. (It should be said that the moments leading up to this decision seem a little shaggy and half-formed themselves, though this may well be the point.) Once they disappear, the novel's other principal characters move into the now-agonizing fore. William's mother, Jane, is a boozy, arty, socialism-inclined divorcee more or less tolerant of her son's relationship, while Emily's parents, Edward and Virginia, are stolid RFK Catholics who cannot initially conceive that their daughter may truly be in love with William. In the long middle section, devoted to the parents' trials and hopelessness, the novel begins to take on hugely tragic overtones. Edward feels strangely drawn to Jane, and together, over the course of many afternoons, they talk about William and Emily, listen to Wagner and Mahler, and, as though recognizing the paltry, colorless nature of adult love when placed beside that of their children, eventually succumb to an affair. Love Among the Ruins quickly becomes a many-mirrored corridor of love: between father and daughter, mother and son, mother and daughter, husband and wife, man and mistress, William and Emily. All, Clark suggests, are reckless, all consume and confuse some part of us, often at the peril of other, less vivid loves. It is not a particularly original or even inherently powerful theme, and that Clark muscles as much nervy force from it as he does is perhapsLove Among the Ruins's most striking accomplishment. Near the book's conclusion, Clark seems to admit that he has, in effect, written an apologia for the domestic novel: "[T]he most raw and pertinent facts of our lives are recorded in the vital statistics of the town hall and local press….Our losses are constant and ephemeral, signified at most in moving vans and vacancies."
Novels set in the recent past, much like novels set in the near future, are of course really about the present. The present concern here appears to be the relative passionlessness of our current generation. But if Love Among the Ruins triggers any serious misgivings, it is when Clark is emptying the safety deposit boxes of the 1960s to unearth his talking points and assemble his case: 2001: A Space Odyssey, Sirhan Sirhan, GTOs, Hubert Humphrey, and the 1968 Democratic Convention are all seemingly rolled out for some hypothetical historian's approval, and during these moments Love Among the Ruins strikes one as more than a little like the didactic form of political drama known as the Living Newspaper.
One's tiny misgivings become moot with Love Among the Ruins's final fifty pages. William and Emily, now living on a small island on the borderland of Minnesota and Canada, initially bask in their newfledged sexual and emotional independence. The early details of their journey—procuring a canoe, stockpiling bacon and canned food—at first seem tedious, but it gradually dawns why Clark has taken these pains. Slowly, tormentingly, William's growing, love-gorged narcissism finally drives Emily away. "You were supposed to care about us more," he says, when Emily admits her longing for home. "There isn't anything I haven't done for you," Emily answers, truthfully. When the final split takes place, when one lover can no longer stand the obliterating power of the other's love, Clark delivers a brief, terrifying sequence as moving as any in contemporary fiction. It would be reckless even to suggest what happens—and churlish not to admit that it drew tears from at least one reader.
Love Among the Ruins is, finally and factually, a modest novel. It challenges no orthodoxies, constructs no outposts on the frontier of inventiveness, and adds virtually nothing to our understanding of novelistic form. It is modest, simple, beautiful, and horribly, vitally sad. In this it resembles life, which must be lived to be fully appreciated, just as this novel must be read to be similarly appreciated. Love Among the Ruins reminds us of the grandeur of small lives and smaller moments, their sometimes terrible ramifications, and how minor fiction can indeed be great.