Obsessive love is a vital theme in modern fiction and its most powerful and enduring explorations—Tolstoy and Proust, Fitzgerald and Nabokov—have been in novels of broad thematic scope. Anna Karenina contrasts the universe of healthy, enduring love between Kitty and Levin with that of the dark, compulsive relationship between Anna and Vronsky. Proust connected his theme of obsession to his vision of time, memory, art, and ultimately personal transcendence. And The Great Gatsby and Lolita present strong evocations and indictments of American society (and have much to say as well about time, memory and art). Each of these novels is also written in beautifully disciplined prose that provides a necessary contrast to the sometimes out-of-control emotions it describes. As these modern masters well understood, to write exclusively about any obsession—including obsessive love—is to describe a narrow and repetitive world.
Like his forebears, Lucius Shepard begins his story of obsessive love on a promisingly broad note. "There are countries that exist only for a matter of days, sometimes only for hours, not lasting long enough to be named or even recognized for what they are by their temporary citizenry," states the narrator in the opening passages ofValentine. "Often they are created by fog banks, hurricanes, blizzards, by any force of nature with the power to isolate; on other occasions they are brought into being by incidences of cosmic weather, shifts in dimensionality and the like, events to which many of us in our stubborn rationality refuse to subscribe."
This striking opening sounds like an invitation to enter a fictive universe as strange and exotic as Calvino's or Borges'. And Shepard's story progresses with a masterful mixture of evocative, musical prose styles:
Lights like stars were scattered throughout the green town, and boats from the foggy west rode heavy swells in toward shore. The swaying of the palm fronds seemed to express a weary eloquence, like the wobbly feelers of ancient insect philosophers arguing in whispers over an abstruse point.
Shepard has a gift for combining lyrical description with a colloquial voice:
A middling surf tumbled in from the fog bank. Reddish brown piles of seaweed littered the beach, humped like bodies of the drowned beneath tattered shrouds. Seagulls keened and skied, pelicans bobbed on the swells, sandpipers left sharp three-toed tracks along the tidal margin. But any notion of nature in harmony took a hit when you factored in the derelict sleeping it off close to the seawall.
Precise and poetic, his prose itself suffices to keep us entertained throughout this diminutive novel.
But beyond his fine writing, Shepard's story of obsessive love never really finds itself in the wider universe of Borgesian meaning he promises. The opening thesis is explored only fleetingly and tentatively, then virtually forgotten, and ultimately Shepard allows his novel to lapse into a somewhat prosaic love story.
Returning from a journalistic assignment in South Florida, Russell, the novel's narrator, is waylaid by a hurricane alert in the coastal town of Piersall. He checks into a hotel to wait out the storm, and there he meets Kay, an ex-lover whom he has not seen for six years. After some initial awkwardness, soon Russell and Kay are making love—something they do frequently during their few days together waiting for the storm alert to subside. Besides having sex, they devote a lot of time to having uninspired conversations about their relationship, walking through the town, going to a restaurant and a movie, and agonizing over the fact that they still love each other but Kay can't bring herself to leave her husband.
The absence of any wider theme makes it hard to sustain an interest in the story. Despite his frequent declarations of love, the only qualities Russell seems to admire in Kay are her beauty, her sexuality, and her unobtainability. Kay, a tenured professor, frequently declares her love for Russell too. But despite all her highly charged sexuality, she's a rather pallid character with predictable sensibilities. The two are apparently well-suited to each other—they enjoy voracious lovemaking, which always works out to the ultimate degree of satisfaction—but Kay is determined to stay with her husband (although we don't know why, because he never emerges as a character in his own right).
Outside the claustrophobic world of Russell and Kay's lovemaking and mutual analysis, the book contains little else beyond a few intriguing but minor encounters with the town's eccentric residents and with a strange pinball machine and miniature golf course. Each of these scenes, though brief, is subtly haunting or comical and provides welcome relief. Here is a funny and virtuoso description of Russell encountering a couple at the Denny's in Piersall:
Dad was about five-foot-eight of brown-haired game show loser, a sausage-eating mutt in his mid-thirties, growing dewlaps and a gut, dressed in shorts and a Six Flags Over Georgia T-shirt. Mom's face was sharper than his—a feral, lipstick-wearing, twitchy-eyed, drab little fox. She was church-on-Sunday pre-spinster mean and money smart. He was a Dork Junior College grad with an enviable collection of NFL memorabilia and deep concerns about the local building code in their hometown of Grub's Nest, Missouri. Their offspring, wearing a dark brown jumpsuit, resembled a chocolate truffle with hands and feet. They were so fucking low-rent-six-pack-family-values-porcelain-dog America, I had a mind to toast them with a glass of buttermilk and a handful of raw bacon.
Passages like that tantalize us about what Valentine could have been had it ventured further into the world. But these scenes, however entertaining, remain largely undeveloped, and fall short of a cumulative and convincing whole. The book is dominated by the sometimes painfully self-conscious interactions of Russell and Kay and by dialogue that can be banal: "You seem to think it's just you, that it was only hard for you. Leaving you…it was like being ripped apart."
Toward the end of Valentine, in one of the intermittently interesting exchanges that do occur between the lovers, Russell lists all the strange things that he has seen or that have happened to him in town. He makes "a thin case for Piersall being a town populated by common folk and a number of imposters, the site of an alien incursion or perhaps a secret government experiment," and concludes that "people are so accustomed to seeing what they think they see, they tend to demystify anything remarkable. God knows what's actually going on. We're trapped in a vast conspiracy all our lives, and we never have a clue even though it's happening right in front of us."
This is an appealing and, in a sense, consoling idea, but the book's events don't justify it.
• • •
As in Valentine, the narrator of David Gilmour's Sparrow Nights (the sophisticated French professor Darius Halloway) is sexually obsessed with his lover and must also try to overcome a major obstacle keeping them apart. The obstacle is their difference in age: Emma Carpenter is nearly thirty years his junior. Like Shepard, Gilmour (whose previous novel Lost Between Houses was a bestseller in Canada) is a brilliant stylist capable of an extraordinary range of effects. But the similarities end there. Gilmour takes a fundamentally different approach to storytelling. In Valentine, Shepard employs a minimalist technique and limits his focus to essentially two characters with very little plot or narrative movement. Like a Phillip Glass composition, the story evolves slowly through repetition and subtle variation. Gilmour's music is more like a Verdi opera or Mahler symphony, with a dramatic collision of opposite forces—rage and compassion, murder and love. His prose master is Proust, filtered through Nabokov, Céline, and Dostoevsky. Indeed, Darius Halloway often sounds like one of the many descendants of Dostoevsky's Underground Man. Accordingly, Gilmour's narrator is more self-aware than Shepard's—more alienated from the world, yet more intensely engaged with it. His secondary characters are also much more compelling. Although Emma exists only as a memory in Darius' mind after the first thirty pages, she is still a more distinctive character than Kay.
Of course, Gilmour's intentions are different from Shepard's. Sparrow Nights is much less a fable and far more a full-bodied novel than Valentine. We get a much richer sense of Darius's job, see how he interacts with a variety of people and circumstances, and even learn some of his wide-ranging literary opinions. Almost immediately we see that this novel will be about more than a romantic fixation; it will involve a broader vision of the world through which Darius is compelled to move.
But Gilmour's novel is not simply more detailed than Shepard's, it is deeper. His narrator sees through himself and his relationship with Emma, in spite of his suffering over her, rather than being obsessively limited by it:
Love mattered. Or was it love? No, probably not. For when Emma left I wanted her dead. How loving was that? (Here I smiled.) No, not murdered, not that. But a sad accident perhaps, where afterwards I might doff my hat, my eyes watering, and say, yes, how dreadful, such a fine young woman.
If anything, Darius is overly self-aware and like Dostoevsky's Underground Man, is forced to ask himself if a man of perception can possibly respect himself at all.
Darius becomes obsessed with Emma almost immediately upon meeting her. He lives with her for about a year and a half, loses her, and finds that he can't stop thinking about her.
He soon finds that he is unable to sleep, a condition exacerbated by the relentless barking of some neighborhood dogs. When more conventional means to control them fails, he devises an elaborate revenge which culminates in his poisoning the dogs. Unfortunately, neither his anger nor his self-destructive behavior ends there. He becomes involved with a massage parlor worker and her menacing boss. The results are harrowing. Again he becomes obsessed with revenge, and only after enacting it can he find relief from Emma and both sleep and love again.
This is, in essence, a story about a man exorcising his obsession through vengeance, albeit displaced vengeance. Sparrow Nights is in a sense a murder mystery, but as in Crime and Punishment, the mystery isn't who did it but why, and what will happen to him after committing the murder. Here Gilmour's answer is complex and crowds in too many events, not all of which are fully believable. Yet this is a small flaw. His great accomplishment is to have created a convincing, often riveting protagonist who asks some important questions about the world. Like Céline, Gilmour has a gift for posing such questions and answering them in aphorisms and other striking phrases: "Pain as they say, is life's only real instructor." "A great thing formality. What those pampered little prickweeds in the sixties never understood—spoilt, parasitic bottom-lickers that they were—was that in many cases, and certainly when it comes to people expressing their real feelings, repression is a good thing." "It is a great skill of the psychopathic, I reflected, to make the offended party feel culpable."
At the end of the novel, Darius encounters Raissa, the love of his youth, and at last exchanges obsession for a kind of mournful self-knowledge:
I didn't sit back down until she had disappeared from the doorway, this gray-haired woman who for a matter of months had lain in my bed and talked to me in the dark. We had known each other's bodies when they were young. How precious that was—for we held an image of each other which no one else in the world did, and when we died, that picture would exist no more.
With Sparrow Nights, David Gilmour joins the list of inspired modern monologists that begins with Dostoevsky and includes Sartre, Camus, Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and Céline. Although Gilmour has a fine gift for realism, what Gide said of Céline is also finally true of Gilmour's Sparrow Nights: "It is not reality that he paints, but the hallucination that reality provokes."