Enon by Paul Harding
It is a truism that the dead are not the true victims of death itself. A sudden and unexpected tragedy will invariably wreak more havoc on the living, those left behind, than it will on the ostensible victims. Mourning and grief are unavoidable over the course of a human life. The only thing that we can do is pray that fate will not step in and remove the light from our lives by taking ones we love too soon. This is the subject of Enon, Paul Harding's second novel.
The book takes place in familiar territory. Those who've read his first novel, Tinkers, will recognize the New England landscape in which the action is set, as well as the thematic landscape that the characters traverse. There is no doubt that Enon is a masterful book. Harding manages to wrap sentences around the mysteries of life, loss, and depression without lapsing into sentimentalism. Readers will find that it is possible to simultaneously care for and cringe at the characters that Harding creates.
Tinkers, which won the Pulitzer Price and the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize in 2010, fused stylistic experimentation with archetypal Big Themes. Enon does similar things in a similar manner. Much of the narrative unfolds in flashbacks or episodes of reminiscence. Both narrators from both books have difficulty inhabiting the present. George Crosby of Tinkers lies on his deathbed, unsure of what is real and what is not. His grandson, Charlie Crosby of Enon, exists in a gulag of grief, all too sure of what is real and all too determined to escape that reality.
Enon is set in present day New England, in the town of Enon, Massachusetts, though most of the action occurs in the narrator's memory. Charlie Crosby recounts the events following the death of his daughter, Kate. The narrator offers a subtle examination of the process of grieving, and at times attempts to make grand claims about the tragedy of life itself.
The reader tracks the trajectory of Charlie's suffering, which seems to increase with each passing page. At first, we witness the stages of disbelief and anger. Charlie finally seems to lapse into a state of apathy about his own life: losing his daughter meant losing everything that mattered to him. Charlie's daughter structured his days, was his sole raison d'Ítre. After her death, we see a man without purpose. His cocktail of depression and listlessness congeals into a painful and debilitating Welshmerz.
The novel traces Charlie's slow motion lapse into a masochistic cycle of self-pity and self-harm. In order to do this, Harding not only unpacks the process of mourning, but also ends up analyzing the way the mind of an addict is slowly assembled through a combination of psychological and physical suffering. We see how easily Charlie slips into a self-induced coma of painkillers and whiskey. This is where the reader will notice Harding's knack for unraveling a narrative and explaining the behavior of his characters, prompting us to empathize in the process. The reader does not scream at Charlie to stop hurting himself. Rather, we acknowledge how easy it would be for us to fall into the same trap.
The sections of the book set in the present day are written in a drowsy and tragic tone. The only light that Harding lets in comes during Charlie's flashbacks and memories of Kate. The narrator muses on family and fate, eloquently connecting a few themes and motifs from Tinkers to the story of Kate, her death and its aftermath on his own life.
We see how truly tragic Charlie has become when he begins to speculate on the impossible future: the life he could have lived had Kate remained alive. Through the haze of whiskey and pills, Charlie's memories of Kate morph into hallucinations. We see him drift further and further into himself as he begins to neglect his health and his home, his once-loved town of Enon. His few interactions with the town's other residents become difficult to bear.
The truly interesting thing about the novel is the way it straddles the thematic line between the profundity and the banality of suffering. Charlie slips from being a tragic figure to a pathetic and strange one. Harding does not romanticize his narrator: we see the narcissism involved in self-harm and self-hatred. Grief and mourning are inherently selfish things. Charlie never laments the experiences that Kate was deprived of. Rather, we constantly listen to the experiences of Kate that he has been deprived of.
Paul Harding gives us a wonderful portrait of the kind of solipsistic whirlpool that tragedy can induce. Charlie Crosby's metamorphosis is so disturbing because Harding crafts it to be so relatable. Enon is very much a novel about the power of love, the way it can build a life, as well as destroy it.
Enon by Paul Harding