Characters. Derek Maine. Expat Press, 2022. 136 pages.
Characters is a short, wonky novel comprised of linked stories (but even that does not accurately describe its shape). I say “wonky” because initially there might have appeared something unstable within it, something on the verge of collapse like a game of Jenga played on the San Andreas Fault. This is charming craft, though, as you come to see that the book in toto is the product of a literary mind which is not necessarily at ease with the act of writing at all — and this unease becomes a tuning fork vibrating strongest when struck by the reader’s empathy. It is made clear how much the reader brings to the phenomenon of a written work, how much the novel responds to what the reader brings to the experience and how much they participate with the writer in forming their half of the words, the sentences, the chapters, the book. A tenuous relationship, a bulwark against loneliness, is formed between the writer composing fiction and its reader, a pact beset by fears, vulnerabilities, contempts, affections, and hopes.
Near the beginning of this novel-in-stories, which in places often reads like bulleted lists of notes to a group of construction workers erecting the novel, we twice read the instruction to “fix it in post,” or words to that effect. What we come to see throughout the course of the book is that from a certain perspective, it’s largely all “post,” post-production where things have to be brought into coherence for continuity’s sake. But such coherence, Maine seems to be warning, is elusive. The novel contains more or less discrete stories with a strong, apparently autobiographical character. The interstitial spaces between the stories, however, the framing chapters behind the scenes are composed of a heady cloud of amorphous groupings of prose-fragments that evade traditional clarity and give the entire project a fair amount of density and difficulty. It took me two tries to really get into the book with enough momentum to finish it, but once I did, I finished it in one sitting.
This is not to say I wouldn’t go back and revisit aspects of the book. The book like a gem has thousands of irregular facets cut into it but by the end of a single rotation on its display table you see the gem’s rough, haunting unity. The largest and clearest facets, so to speak, are the story-chapters relaying the life of a multilayered “I” who has led a troubled life of aimless youth, alcohol, and shaky mental health mostly in North Carolina. This narrator spent years living amongst a college-adjacent collective of “punks and anarchists” immersed in drugs and hedonism, noise and fury. The narrator’s childhood and adolescence is also painted with colorful, painful episodes which don’t reveal all their details at once; so much of the book is seen as thought through a fog of incomplete, perhaps reluctant memory. The narrator/author — I believe his name in the framing chapters is given as “Garrett Frame,” very clever — spent other periods of his younger years caring for an older paraplegic man in New Hampshire as a form of “running away,” which seemed to be a habitual maneuver. Also habitual or narratively tendentious in the text is the prevalence of suicidal ideas and suggestions of crippling breakdowns. As a chronicle of a striving, imperfect life lived, novel does not lack for emotionally wrenching subject matter; it is not an airless, cold exercise at all.
But Characters spends a fair amount of its running time, when not hitting emotional notes, blending such emotion with harmonic, cerebral meditations on literature: what is it, why write it, why do we need it, how can writers do it well. Maine (or his mouthpiece) does a fair share of justifiable snarling at the so-called site of production of literature: the struggle of the conception, writing, editing, collating, and inevitable criticism of a work of fiction, how it is set in its literary context. The character of Fallon Wright, a critic, is caricatured and treated as a kind of barnacle on the outer hull of the writer, a necessary evil. Other characters orbiting the fiction we are reading include an editor, Thomas Pearl; a professor of comparative literature at Temple U., Dr. Robert Dawson; Sam and Cassie, two grad students helping Dawson research Garrett Frame’s fictional output using a mysterious accessory known as “the Program”; the “Lawyer” advising Frame on the legal intricacies of writing “truth in fiction,” where it would be advisable to change names to protect the innocent — the contemplated repercussions of which produce a sort of Brechtian effect ensuring for the reader that much of this material must in fact derive from real life. As I said before, the framing chapters, called “Night Shades,” with their sophisticated polyphony of metafictional voices and narrations and transcripts, may have been the most challenging and dense portions of the text for me and the parts requiring the strongest leg muscles to hurdle. Once I ventured deeper into the novel I was more able to take the metafictional medicine with the spoonful of autobiographical sugar, as it were. And the “characters” of the whole book did indeed seem, like the cast of a dream, to be outcroppings of a single individual: the creator.
In his Afterword on Lolita, Vladimir Nabokov gave a list of subtle details of his book which, completely aside from the larger movements of its main plot, formed “the nerves of the novel. These are the secret points, the subliminal co-ordinates by means of which the book is plotted.” Nabokov seemed to think it was high art to steal away in his pages a subtly hidden strutwork of images, references, and callbacks that would be discernible to careful readers and would pin a novel together better than the main supporting beams of narration and plot. Maine does that here in Characters in ways that had me letting off sighs that were one-part envy against three-parts admiration, filaments that I can’t list here for fear of spoiling any other conceivable reader’s discovery of them. But the hidden co-ordinates I found, and may find again on a second or third reading, were not artificial building material, rather they were echoes of observed real life in its still-traveling pathos and therefore had an emotionally “earned” content, to use a tricky MFA word. Hence the sighing and shaking my head. That’s all a book can do for a reader, a viewer, a turner of pages, a human.