The Book of Life

By Stuart Nadler. Picador, 2012. 256 pages. £12.99. ISBN: 978-1-447-20242-4.

“Fiction is meant to illuminate, to explode, to refresh. I don’t think there’s any consecutive moral philosophy in [it],” masterly short story architect John Cheever once told a Paris Review interviewer. His friend John Updike and their contemporary James Salter, too, have hewed to this principle, their tales pivoting on moments of ambivalence in the blue hour of morality, their narrators withholding judgment of errant or recidivist characters, treating them instead with comic brio or lapidary intimacy.

The disconsolate middle-aged New England men in Stuart Nadler’s debut short story collection, The Book of Life, have Updikean and Salteresque valences. A concupiscent businessman’s affair with his partner’s daughter unveils, in turn, the partner’s dalliance with his wife. A woman’s open marriage causes her “respectably lonely” husband and aggrieved son to bond. In the wake of their parents’ deaths, two brothers reunite after years of separation. An artist and his ex-girlfriend regret the breakdown of their relationship over his cheating and her scheming. A newlywed pursuing a reticent old flame during a visit to his hometown understands why his grandfather is fired from his job, his lover unwelcome in their hidebound community.

Yet The Book of Life does not probe moral ambiguity, the crucible of Nadler’s stories, deeply enough. Characters and narrators regard virtue and vice as absolutes. An adulterer is portrayed unequivocally, as “not the sort of man to do such a thing. This was something he knew, unquestionably, deep in his heart.” Family is “the only thing that mattered in the end,” while extramarital affairs are reduced to cases of “misdirected boredom or simple lust.” Even when a son “is feeling for the first time the terrible strain of regret…the worst part of adulthood…because it’s an emotion that accompanies every one of our important decisions,” the father never explores the yearning or self-loathing which that “regret” anticipates.

Many of the female characters are caricatures—myopic, feckless, or wan. A wife “wasn’t the sort of woman who’d become angry at his infidelity,” but “the sort of woman who’d crumple and dissolve and shut down.” An artist’s philistine girlfriend compares his abstractions to “the art her kindergarten students made when they were angry,” while her friend “is the sort of woman who…pretends to love men but who never misses an opportunity to insult them.” A lawyer’s friend “seemed relaxed, like her skin fit her better, as if she’d gone shopping for it at Saks.” Updike’s spare, candid prose betokens a sincere affection for and forgiveness toward his characters. Salter’s affective luminosity is contained in epigrammatic but vatic sentences. Nadler’s style is a hybrid of these two, absent their capacious empathy toward moral vagaries, and chary of examining the interstices and depths of fractured psyches.

Nadler’s keen sensitivity to perpetuating intergenerational continuities and bridging disparities, and to the breakdown of Judaism and marriage as moral compasses give him a distinctive place in contemporary American letters, one shared only by Nathan Englander. Yet his characters are ephemeral, their affective revelations superficial or unambiguous. They are removed from Salter’s fragile, visionary poet-protagonists and Updike’s affable miscreants, each precisely limned and uniquely memorable.

This piece was published in the May 18, 2012 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. The table of contents and typeset piece are accessible here.

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