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 o...
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 rec