Tuesday, July 14, 2015

On Seeing Double

Michael Backus's Double is wonderful surprise of a novel, a gem that slowly reveals itself, rewarding the reader at the end with an unexpected vision of surprising breadth and brilliance. While some novels make it clear early on that the scope will be far-reaching, this one presents itself as a series of intimate portraits of numerous characters, and only at the end, does it become clear how the drama of each life has been cast on a larger stage. In short, this novel, which is told in a series of short chapters following the lives of numerous characters, proves to be much more than the sum of its parts.

The story opens with Henry, whose voice and trajectory threads most prominently throughout the novel. His wife, Phillips, ran off many years earlier, and not long after the opening of the novel, Henry is being fired from the cab company where he has been working for the past two years, because, as he says, it was the least humiliating of the non-professional positions available to him in the years since he quit teaching college film courses in bout of frustration and disillusionment, and also because being a driver was “the perfect job for five minute relationships.” Such is Henry’s realization in the opening chapters of the book: “I no longer own the ability to connect with people on a deeper, more satisfactory level; like its an organ gone vestigial after 10 million years of disuse.” Henry’s point of view is intriguing in his jaded and quirky disillusionment, and his capacity for brutal honesty is endearing, especially when it comes to his own self-assessment. For example, when an attempt to shave his beard goes overboard and leaves his face and head completely hairless, he describes himself this way: “I look hulking, slightly demented, a little stupid in a backwards way... Desperate and sad; showing his weakness by announcing to all the world how he wants people to see him.”

Henry’s tailspin propels him on a journey that ultimately proves transformative - to himself and others. As the novel progresses, Henry’s story often fades into the background without ever disappearing altogether, and we meet others. There’s Aaron, Henry’s sick cousin haunting an abandoned barn; a woman named Franny - once a mother, who seems like the sort for whom time has stopped as a result of some trauma; The Dude, Franny’s husband, and father of the young twins, Sonny and Sammy, that he can’t seem to tell apart, and whose secret language frustrates him in its impenetrability. Each character is well written, and Backus skillfully handles the point of view of children in his depiction of the young twins as well as in his narration of Cadence, Henry’s estranged daughter of eleven or twelve, who was left in the care of Phillips’ parents after she left. A large part of the suspense of the first half of the novel comes from wondering, How do all of these people connect?

By the time my confusion reaches a point of near frustration, I am trusting the author enough to have faith that he is going somewhere. The writing is so excellent that I am willing to keep reading even if he isn’t; crisp sentences offer moments of poetic insight without ever veering into the stratosphere. The last third of the novel is when various elements begin to come into view, and the dramatic tension that has been woven all along begins to reverberate with unexpected depth, building to a pitch that resonates in full, stunning clarity on the last page.

I love the way that this book explores the intricacies of the forces that pull people together, and how it so expertly refutes the idea that a character’s trajectory is his or her own, the way it sometimes appears to be when you hear about story arcs and heroic journeys. This story glows with the intricacy of a complex organism, and each part, each character, plays such a vital role in the evolution of the others. The concept is sublime and lasting, and this is a challenging story that resonates long after its done. I finished weeks ago in a series of post-midnight readings, and it is still with me.

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