In Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant and engaging essay, “Imagination and Community,” she writes that we live on a small island that consists of what can be said, “which we tend to mistake for reality itself.” As she transforms the voices of her narrators into the sentences of her fictions, she tries to make “inroads on the vast terrain of what cannot be said — or said by me, at least.” The result has been three novels, all award winners, still selling well in dozens of languages. Now along comes A Questionable Shape, a wisely titled and rich first novel by Bennett Sims, who in his own way explores what Robinson calls “the frontiers of the unsayable.”
Before I go further, perhaps I should say that I am sixty-something and a picky reader, someone whose favorite novels fill a single shelf. There sit Robinson and Faulkner, Isaac Babel, Elio Vittorini, J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians. Herta Müller’s Herztier, Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo. Nuruddin Farah’s Maps, Javier Marías’s Your Face Tomorrow. Like Sims, I studied with Robinson. Unlike him, I have not found an easy way into the works of David Foster Wallace, with whom he also studied, and to whom he dedicates this book: “For Dave.”
On the surface, the storyline of A Questionable Shape is simple. During an epidemic of undeath that has savaged Baton Rouge and the world, a loner, plumber, and collector/hoarder has vanished and is presumed undead. His son wants to find him, even though the father he knows and loves has changed so completely that he would bite his only son and leave him incurably undead. The narrator joins the search, thereby risking being bitten, too.
“What we know about the undead so far is this: they return to the familiar,” the narrator begins. “…They will climb into their own cars and sit dumbly at the wheel, staring out the windshield into nothing. A man bitten, infected, and reanimated fifty miles from home will find his way back, staggering over diverse terrain — which, probably, he wouldn’t have recognized or been able to navigate in his mortal life — in order to stand vacantly on a familiar lawn.”
Who among us has not sat at the steering wheel of a vehicle staring into nothing, or stood vacantly on a lawn or a grassless patch of dirt staring at something no one else could see? Or, for that matter, staggered. Herein lies one strength of Sims’ novel — we are as likely at certain moments to identify with the undead as with the living: to see ourselves too easily as stunted, ravaged, hardly human.
But, dear Reader, do not be fooled. You are fully human. Also, undeath is the topic of A Questionable Shape the way Yoknapatawpha County is the topic of Faulkner, which is to say, it is merely the apparent topic, the setting, the metaphor, the externality that allows the narrator to settle in and explore the shades, shapes, and melodies of consciousness and experience. As Sims’s narrative moves forward, he uses footnotes, asides, diversions, explications, and lyrical imaginings to produce in the reader a kind of double vision of the mind, an extra set of eyes somewhere back in the head.
The two friends, both of whom are addicted to books, but in different ways, try to imagine themselves deep enough into the mind of the missing man to discover the locales he would long for in his undeath. When he was living, he lifted coffee to his lips in a certain café, browsed through the daily objects of yesteryear in a particular antiques mall, watched movies with his son in their favorite theater. But does that mean his savaged mind, reduced to its most intense nostalgias, would drag its ruined body back to any of those spots? This and other questions lead the narrator into meditations on yearning, life, death, time, memory, nostalgia, sight, insight, wisdom. On the world as it is and as it seems to be. On the perplexities of trying to know and understand the people we are closest to.
Often the narrator observes his partner closely, trying to understand her. In his recounting, these scenes become prisms of life. In one, she lies on a red blanket on the grass, intent on protecting her white sweater from grass stains, when “a rogue dead leaf” becomes enmeshed in the fine fuzz of the cashmere. “From a certain angle, this gave the brittle leaf the appearance of hovering in the air…. Beaming down at the levitating leaf, she said it looked as if it were bodysurfing on a crowd of ghosts. And by God it did: that dead leaf, brown and crispate, seemed to be borne aloft by a thousand invisible, white hands.” The allusion-loving narrator labels such moments “my private Bethlehem stars.” But Sims is fastidious in fashioning his metaphors. Readers will find meaning within meaning in those invisible white hands.
A Questionable Shape offers its readers many Bethlehem stars. For me, the first were the phrases, in an early footnote, “infected texts” and “phantom feet.” They lifted me away from the narrative and sent images flying back and forth between memory and imagination. When I returned to the page, I felt more alive, ready to move forward through the coming explorations. Reading on, I had the sense that I was tramping towards the roar of many rivers, wondering where and how they might join. Along the way, the characters and their search grew gradually more important to me, until their quest was mine, their thoughts and doubts and worries mine, their dangers mine.
Are we not every day in our own quests large and small exposed to attacks on the body, to outbreaks threatened or actual against the spirit or mind? Where I live, among the mesas and mountains of northern New Mexico, at any dawn or dusk a mountain lion could spring from behind, bite my neck and break it, giving me no chance to raise my mace and spray. I would be lucky to be merely undead. Bears here open doors, enter living rooms and kitchens, eat pies or popcorn, occasionally people. Fleas spread plague, ticks carry spotted fever. Mice with deer-like ears spray the air with Hantavirus every time they pee. A rattlesnake might sink fangs into my calf, a boulder overhead break loose and smash me, a flashflood wash me into the Río Grande. Meanwhile, chemicals leach from the earth they were carelessly buried in. I might any day tramp through an invisible, unfeelable patch of radioactivity and, with the sole of my shoe, pick up a particle containing plutonium and transport it unknowingly into the bedroom. As I set out for Santa Fe, drivers pass with bumper stickers like these: “Atomic bombs=sixty-five years of peace” and “Keep your sissy hands off my guns.”
Am I to give up the highways, the neighbors, the mesas, the state, my homeland, the planet? Am I to wear side mirrors on my glasses or devise armor, costume, incantation, poultice to keep danger away? Am I to lock myself in a room and fall undead, forfeiting beauty, mystery, pleasure, wisdom, as termites chew the roof and walls away?
A Questionable Shape is a novel for those who read in order to wake up to life, not escape it, for those who themselves like to explore the frontiers of the unsayable. I envision the core readership as brilliant and slightly disaffected men and women. In the larger circle will be fans of Anne Carson, Nicholson Baker, Rivka Galchen, Juan Rulfo, W.G. Sebald, Henry and William James, and gaggles of Russian and German writers. Also, I suspect, fans of David Foster Wallace.
There may be readers who will — on discovering that A Questionable Shape combines a quest, a romance, humor, and an epidemic of zombies, with philosophy, footnotes, history, science, the arts, half of Daniel Webster, cascades of lyricism and truckloads of realism — refuse to so much as open the back cover and peer at the author’s eyebrows. The same may be true of those who expect a novel to contain certain elements and behave in certain ways.
I wish them peace. I wish them well. I wish they would do what I so often do not, and rethink their decision.
To the rest of you I say, Climb a tree and take this book into the leaves and branches with you. Stuff it in your backpack and read it in a meadow. Take it to Dallas. Take it to New Zealand. It is more than just a novel. It is literature. It is life. It is going on my shelf between Your Face Tomorrow and Pedro Páramo.
If the skeleton standing on the corner tapping her watch and staring at me doesn’t drag me off first, I may yet find joy in reading David Foster Wallace.