Eight White Nights by André Aciman
Two twenty-eight-year-old New Yorkers meet at a party. She’s wearing an almost see-through red shirt, she sings, her name is Clara. She’s bold, whimsical, complicated, tricky, can be mean -- she shoots poison darts with her words, takes them back, and shoots them again. She has an ex-lover named Inky and a lot of rich, Upper Manhattan friends who call her “Clariushka” and are on anti-depressants. She has a cutesy, precious way of speaking, with her own special little words for things -- amphibalance, otherpeoples, nymphormayion, pandangst. Also, she peppers certain sentences with bits of French or pseudo-French (“very tres goormay,” garlique), poking fun at her own affected breeziness, which makes her all the more affectedly breezy. He -- a fan of Rohmer who over-observes and over-thinks even the most minute details of their interaction -- falls madly in love with her right away, although we’re in for 300-some odd pages of ceaseless back-and-forth waiting for the words to be uttered. He edges emotionally closer to her -- or is it bravado? -- by echoing her little phrases and in-jokes. (Alas, she thwarts him each time, as on Night Two, when he tells her about eating a garlique-infested Thai soup, but then she changes the word to garly: “It took me a few seconds to note that she had spun out a new version of a word I thought was intimate kitchenspeak between us. Can’t get too cozy with her.”)
Over eight magically snowy nights between Christmas Eve and New Years, their romance plays out, like the day in that Ethan Hawke movie Before Sunset, only way longer.
Now, if Keith Gessen or Jeff Hobbs had written Eight White Nights, I might’ve been purely annoyed by the self-consciously clever Clara. I might’ve assumed that the semi-nameless narrator (we know him by her nickname for him, Printz Oskar) was an over-observing, over-thinking altar-ego of the scene-y author himself. But that would be like seeing John Malkovich play Lennie in Of Mice and Men and assuming that the actor himself is mentally damaged and likes soft things, right? Wouldn’t it? I’m “amphibalent.”
I’ve seen John Malkovich onstage in Burn This and A Slip of the Tongue. And I’ve reread and quoted André Aciman’s lovely and sad essays on exile and identity, appreciated his sensitivity as the editor of books like Letters of Transit and The Proust Project, and enjoyed his debut novel, Call Me By Your Name, a lovely and sad and very hot story of first love. I had to assume there was some kind of method to his madness. Also, he’s good at writing, and I got all sucked into the story, invested in the characters and their parrying, their self-protection, their potential tenderness. But then I got spit out again, just like the self-obsessed, game-playing characters, dancing around each other. Something about them reminded me of a scene from Danzy Senna’s Symptomatic, where the mixed-race protagonist who is passing as white has to endure the buffoonish racism of her boyfriend’s friends, with their tinkling laughter and breezy affectedness, not imagining that one of “them” might be in the room. Later, she sees all of them with their arms linked, skipping down the street and singing Jane’s Addiction’s “Jane Says,” happy as can be, in their own snotty, oblivious little circle where there’s no outside world, at all. It was a powerful scene for me, as a reader, because it was so familiar. It somehow captured the truth about rich kids of the most privileged race and class, their in-jokes, their nicknames. The characters in Eight White Nights are Jewish -- the Holocaust is a theme -- but they still remind me of that smug little in-group. Is Aciman spoofing this? I can’t quite tell. I refuse to believe that, like Keith Gessen, he’s pretending to spoof it in order to hide the fact that he’s truly that way.
I have a feeling that Aciman is trying to make an Eric Rohmer-movie-in-a-book, that the characters’ mind games (which read as more immature and tedious than titillating or tension-building) and pretentious verbiage might be a tongue-in-cheek literary exercise, like the Goddard references (petty crime and an appealingly cocky antihero) in Adam Berlin’s appealing Belmondo Style. There’s also probably plenty of inspiration from Proust. Or something. I’m a reader with a low level of Rohmer-and-Proust literacy, though, so I can’t know for sure. The Rohmer parallels might be hilariously witty for Rohmer’s fans and detractors. I might be missing some of the humor. I read that other people found Call Me By Your Name Proustian, but that book was so easy to like for the non-initiated. A person wouldn’t have to understand any references to get into it.
There are good things about Eight White Nights. The characters do transform, despite all their apparent frozenness and stagnation. The moments and layers of intimacy that they find change them. The untold parts of the story are loveliest, their lives outside of the snow globe of those nights. The book might grow on me, stay with me, seem like a more momentous book eight or ten months after I’ve read it -- I don’t know yet. I ended up really liking the movie Before Sunset. Aciman has written some beautiful passages, and also some movingly erotic ones. Some of the writing completely makes up for the back-and-forth, the coyness, the bratty and entitled characters. Some of the moments take things deeper, before sliding back to preciousness again. I wonder whether that happens in Eric Rohmer movies, too. In one scene:
She leaned her back against the bakery store window and let me kiss her, and all I could feel then was my crotch against hers, pushing ever so mildly, then pushing again, as she yielded first and then pushed back, softly, because this was what we’d been rehearsing all along, and this too was a rehearsal. This was why they’d invented sex, and this was why people made love and went inside each other’s body and then slept together, because of this and not for any of the many reasons I’d imagined or been guided by during my entire life. How many other things would I discover I didn’t know the first thing about tonight? People made love not because they wanted to but because something far older than time itself and yet way smaller than a ladybug ordained it…
The ending is a devastating meditation on love and time, one that almost sweeps the characters out of the way to let the writer do his thing. Does a brilliant portrayal of Lennie Small mean that a brilliant man is standing there? Or does it leave you with an authentic slow-minded killer in your midst, crushing the skulls of soft-headed creatures? Not to confuse books with movies too much. It must be contagious. Even though Eight White Nights is all about Clara and her maybe-someday-man, even though its 300+ pages are a seemingly eternal examination of their moves and countermoves, of their insularity, of their complicated dialogue, somehow it’s almost as if they don’t belong in this novel, at all. It’s the way the narrator has lost his father that lingers, the way any intimacy can be lost at any time. Maybe all those pages of dialogue, of acting and inaction, were just scenes on a screen. Real life is just outside the frame -- in the dark audience, on the street corner. The characters know that, of course.
Eight White Nights by André Aciman
Farrar Straus & Giroux