August 2006

fiction

Forgetfulness by Ward Just

I have a friend who will occasionally, to amuse me, describe a film as “a madcap romp” or "an emotional roller coaster,” but I have never worked up the nerve to use those clichés of reviewing. I have never used the words “a compelling read” either, but Ward Just’s Forgetfulness may inspire my first use of the phrase. There were points when I didn’t want to keep reading, yet I found myself turning pages anyway. My reluctance was not due to any flaw in the book, but rather to the fact that there were sections that were so well written, true, and involving that they were painful to read. The story concerns the murder of Florette, the warm and lively wife of an American named Thomas and Just opens his novel with a painfully intimate, detailed chapter about the murder, told from Florette’s point of view.  

Florette’s husband, Thomas, is an ex-spy, now artist, perfectly content with his expatriate life, painting, traveling Europe, and creating a home in a tiny village with his French wife. The disturbances are brought by outsiders: angry Americans come into town looking for a fight. The American niece of Thomas’s neighbor rails against the clannishness of village politics. The largest upheaval of all is brought by the Moroccan mercenaries who choose to murder an injured Florette rather than help her. Thomas’s two childhood friends from Wisconsin, both in the spy trade, attempt to help Thomas find Florette’s murderers. Bernhard, the mastermind of the two, takes an extreme interest in Thomas’s need for revenge, while Russ simply urges him to move on and start dating again. Both men misunderstand the depth of their friend’s grief, and the sense of finality that Florette’s death has caused.

The major theme of the book is summed up in the title: should Thomas try to forget parts of his life and move on? Should he hold onto his anger and seek revenge on the men who murdered his wife? Unlike most people, his connections in espionage make eye-for-an-eye vengeance a distinct possibility, but Thomas doesn’t know if he should take it. Will retaliation help, as Bernhard suggests? One of the interesting elements of the book is that there is no discussion of a moral dilemma. Thomas would not be defiled, brought to the killers’ level; rather the debate is over the utility of revenge. No amount of pain inflicted on the men will heal him, and nothing will bring Florette back, so why expend the energy?

Forgetfulness takes some interesting turns in order to avoid obvious gimmicks. Just dispenses with the physical nature of the mourning process in one tidy paragraph.

Probably that would be the way of things for awhile, speaking aloud to empty rooms, brewing tisane for two, buying dinner for two, buying women’s shampoo in the pharmacy and Paris-Match at the newsstand. When he realized at last that she was no longer with him and that this was for keeps, the knowledge would come as no comfort at all. That would mean she was absent from the background as well as the foreground.

We never get descriptions of the pain Thomas is in; we never see him weeping. But, while his life with Florette is in color, popping with background noises and the smell of food, the scenes after her death are strictly black and white, quiet, drained. By building the book slowly, out of half-remembered moments and scenes that have little “significance,” Just allows the reader’s portrait of Florette and Thomas to grow organically. Their life together is sketched in a series of flashbacks, from both characters’ viewpoints, that make some sections of the book almost unbearable to read. Just also turns some potentially bad scenes into the best in the book. As soon as we see Florette’s portrait above the mantle, we know that Thomas will be talking to it soon, but when he does, nothing particularly dramatic is said. He asks for Florette’s opinions, imagines her disapproving of his drinking, flirting with him, everyday things that preserve his sense of continuity. Even Thomas’s remembrance of Karen, his first serious girlfriend, is handled in a way that adds to the portrait of his grief. Thomas only fixates on Karen as a sort of solace, rewriting his past in order to avoid the present. He fantasizes about Karen’s subsequent life as way to reassure himself that if he didn’t destroy Karen, Florette’s death similarly was not his fault. Just weaves these fantasies so deftly into memories of conversations from the couple’s past that they never seem cloying, but rather illuminate Thomas’s character more and more completely.

My only problem with the book arises when Just does his job too well: the sections of the book dealing with revenge and espionage are never as gripping as Thomas’s internal monologue. Thomas’s life as a spy could have been sketched a bit better. It’s doubtful that an intelligent man would actually look on these things as “larks” with never a thought about the bigger picture, or that such a naïf would be employed by the cold Bernhard. While it is interesting to contrast Bernhard’s and Russ’s paths with the one Thomas chose, the whole espionage aspect feels tacked on, rather than integral to Thomas’s character. It seems almost as though, since Just wants to see what would happen if Thomas got to confront Florette’s murderers, he has to rig a way for them to be caught. For Thomas to be deemed worthy to be left in a room with them, for him to have a free hand, he has to be more than a humble painter, so he’s a spy on the side.

This is far more than a fluffy spy novel, but not quite the somber “response to a tragedy” that would have made the book a chore. Instead it is about two people tangentially affected by terrorism, who become victims of an engendered and unreflective callousness rampant in the world. Because the book is built around the memories and emotions of two very real people, it becomes a moving response to something too large to write about.

Forgetfulness by Ward Just
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618634630
258 Pages