The Half Life by Jonathan Raymond
“Trixie’s eyes glistened. She had built an entire world for herself, Tina could see—a world where thoughts were never wasted, and energy was never misspent. A world devoted solely to her own burning idea of freedom. A world where the best someone else could be was her servant.”
There are some people who possess a charisma that effortlessly binds others to them. Chances are that most of us have been involved in a friendship or relationship with someone whose personality overpowers our own, a situation where you are so enthralled by this person that their goals and desires become an influential, even sustaining, part of your own life. In The Half-Life, Jonathan Raymond studies two friendships that would seem to fit this description -- Tina and Trixie, two teenage girls living in a leftover hippie community in 1980s Oregon; and Cookie and Henry, a cook and a trapper who are among the early settlers of Oregon. Tina and Cookie are both living in the shadow of the more powerful personalities of their friends and Raymond chooses to use mostly their perspective on these relationships. Although Neil, a solitary soul and owner of the commune, also occasionally contributes his thoughts as he explores another connection across time, the discovery of two very old skeletons in the marsh on his property.
Both Tina and Cookie are newcomers, outsiders, they are vulnerable and they are looking for their role in a new place. Raymond details how immediately and completely these two people fall for their new friends and, naturally, soon become involved in their schemes in pursuit of fame and money. The scenario is not completely believable since the magnetic forces of Trixie and Henry do not always come across to the reader with what would seem to be the necessary intensity. Then again charisma is often just that -- an indefinable quality. It can have different affects on different people, so perhaps their magic just didn’t work on me.
Raymond does his best to explore both the weaknesses at the heart of these friendships and also the hidden strengths that slowly reveal themselves, especially when both friendships are eventually severed. The supposedly more dynamic Trixie and Henry both move on without much thought while Tina and Cookie sustain themselves through the memories and lessons of these relationships. Completely unlike the sappy emotional blackmail that you might think this would entail (e.g. in the style of the movie Beaches), these dependent -- or one could argue co-dependent -- friendships are handled with a great deal of distance and sobriety, bordering on perhaps too much of both. Initially this lead me to not care all that much about what happened to these pairs of friends, but I grew to appreciate Raymond’s commitment to this dispassionate tone a bit more as the novel progressed.
What did hold my interest throughout the novel is Raymond’s careful exposition of another character: the Pacific Northwest. The wonderful sense of place in this novel is one of its saving graces. Raymond takes the time to fully describe the culture and landscape, including just the right amount of details about the local flora and fauna, both during the pioneer days and modern day (1980s). The contrast of these descriptions makes for an effective and stimulating look at the passage of time, and not incidentally demonstrates how nature is affected by human progress. And ultimately, the place is also what intimately, and very successfully, connects the two pairs of friends Tina and Trixie, and Cookie and Henry.
The Half-Life by Jonathan Raymond