No Book But the World by Leah Hager Cohen
No Book but the World, Leah Hager Cohen's fifth novel, proposes to ask two questions. First, and most pressing to the novel's plot: Did he or didn't he? The novel opens with our narrator, Ava, on her way to meet with her brother Fred in jail in Perdu, a small town in upstate New York. Fred has been accused of a terrible, if somewhat ambiguous crime. A young boy is dead, found naked and bruised in a nearby national park, and Fred -- a loner, most recently a drifter, someone who finds both communication and contact extremely difficult -- was last seen heading out of town with him in his grandfather's pick-up truck. As it turns out, the boy died of exposure, but the situational evidence of Fred's involvement, added to the fact that he is large, strange, that there is an expected Law and Order SVU-type of narrative behind these interactions, has all but convicted Fred in the court of public opinion.
In spite of Ava's fervent desire to believe otherwise, the circumstances have come close to convincing her as well. Alone in a bed and breakfast room the cautious lack of cheer of which perfectly mirrors our narrator's precise and scrupulous despair, Ava begins to write the history of Fred's and her life together as children and what she can intuit about their lives apart as adults after the death of their parents. Though she was a bookish child and has grown up to be a circumscribed, observant, bookish adult, Ava opens the novel with such anxiety about the nature of stories to transform and to exculpate that she attempts to do the impossible: craft a history that is in no part tale. "I must be vigilant against making this a story," Ava says as she sets out to write the story of this book. Her failure in this regard is what proposes the second, and ultimately more interesting, question of the novel: How do we understand ourselves without each other? Or, more precisely: What responsibility do we have to continue the story of our childhood once our childhood has been left behind?
Ava and Fred are raised in Batter Hollow, the wooded grounds of a now defunct experimental school run by their father, a Rosseauean philosopher of childhood education. There they are encouraged to resist institutionalization in any form, including the form of the family. Given their freedom in all matters, Ava and Fred spend their days in the woods learning from nature and each other while their father, a kindly if domineering figure, observes with a "maddeningly genuine curiosity," but, ostensibly, neither intervenes nor instructs. Ava is serious, prim -- a girl who, in spite of never having attended school, reads to her little brother, "enunciating schoolmarmishly," and responds to the violence of the fairy tales she tells with "a silvery jelly feeling that was disturbing without being disagreeable," believing that the wolves and witches, crones and ropes of shining hair, "all lay in store for us -- me and Freddy." Ava's difference -- her stiltedness, her observational distance, her inability to "laugh... at anything, even that which is by all accounts patently absurd" -- is a chord that plays subtly throughout the book, allowing her almost unbelievable recall and the remove of a storyteller's perspective. In contrast, Freddy's difference is a startlingly heavy note that sounds from the first pages and, each time it is introduced, labors with the same discordant tone.
Fred is a character with an unspecified developmental disability that leaves him inaccessible. As a child he is overly large, physically uncoordinated, slow to learn, quick to anger, and difficult for anyone but his sister Ava to understand. We are given some touching moments of insight into his being -- such as when, as a toddler, he traces his fingers over the pictures in the book Ava is reading, "getting overexcited and rubbing faster and harder, scratching with his sharp little nails" -- but mostly how we know Fred is through the ways other people fail to know him. Determined to allow Fred the experience of himself outside of an ordained condition, Ava and Fred's parents choose to have him neither diagnosed nor treated. The result is that what Ava refers to as his "strangeness," can be both contained and minimized by the nucleus of this anti-nuclear family.
Raised in the woods as much as in the home, as a child Fred can be a wild boy, his inability to fit into the expectations of society reframed as a choice, the specific nature of his tenderness and even his frustration and rage nurtured within the framework laid out in Emile, which states that a child's education should be first concerned with his strength and endurance, experiential logic, powers of observation, and only much later, almost as an afterthought, should he be taught the "sentiment" that will make him a "loving and feeling being," in addition to an "active and thinking" one. The only attempt any member of the family makes to name Fred's condition comes when Ava, newly married and home to visit her ailing mother, stumbles across a collection of Fred's ephemera that he has left in a treehouse deep in the Batter Hollow woods. Among more prosaic items -- army blankets, an electric lantern -- Ava uncovers a motley assemblage of objects that verge on cliché in their horror-story presentiment. A family group of tattered, mutilated dolls, composition books written in by an unknown child, the skeleton of a bat, "assembled in a corner of the platform with evident care, even... fastidiousness," these objects serve as symbols for the ways in which Fred's childhood strangeness -- feral and fey but ultimately still circumnavigable as a symptom of childhood -- have been made into something more ominous by his maturity. Ava rushes into the house in tears to ask her mother, for the first and only time in the book, "What is the matter with him." Her mother's response: "'He is difficult to love,' June said after a while. Softly, softly she said this, as if it was a secret she had always meant to keep. A pause. Then: 'That's not the same as unlovable.'"
June's response reveals the central dilemma of the novel. As a child, Fred is definable because he is dismissible; as an adult, his disability renders him unimaginable to his family. Given her philosophical beliefs, it is understandable that their mother would refuse to answer a question about Fred with a medical diagnosis, and indeed would not know how to answer the question in this particular way, but it is striking that the answer she gives relates not to Fred's way of being in the world at all, but to her and Ava's experience of Fred as members of his family. The novel follows a pattern of negation. Even when Fred is the central figure of the scene, the subject of the scene is invariably Ava's experience of Fred as an obstacle to her normalcy, a tension in her friendships, a condition of her own identity within the family, a cipher whose crimes are imaginable, but whose daily life escapes her.
Toward the end of the book Hager Cohen -- or, more to the point, Ava -- gives us a section, simply entitled "Fred," that details the missing years between their parent's death and his and explains how he came to be in Perdu, how he came to have a relationship with the dead boy, how he is innocent of everything he is accused of, how, ultimately, he will be saved. The narration encompasses Fred's abandonment, his sexual victimization, his difficulty interpreting the social subtext the world revolves on, his confusion, his desire for friendship, and, finally, both his ability to treasure the same icons of his childhood life that Ava holds dear and his ability to form real and meaningful relationships with another person, even if that person is a twelve-year-old boy. In short, it humanizes him. What a blow, then, to discover, in the final pages of the book, that this section, too, was all Ava -- inventing for Fred, translating for Fred, explaining for Fred, since Fred, a suicide in his jail cell, is out of reach. With this final gesture, Hager Cohen erases Fred as a man with desires, satisfactions, and accomplishments from this novel, and it is this absence, much more than the pitiable circumstances Ava conjures as markers of his adult life or any strains of the whodunit murder-mystery that linger from the opening section, that makes this book at once so tender, so compelling, and so infuriatingly sad.
Hager Cohen writes with the sort of lucid ease that is evidence of long practice, almost as if the act of writing sentences has become muscle memory -- so efficient that the reader is free to ignore any of the machinations of form and is left with effect alone. In its best sections, when Ava and Fred are children in a place clearly loved by both narrator and author, the mood of the book is so perfectly wedded to its characters there is no distinction between the telling and the tale. Consider this description of the children, Ava, Freddy, and Ava's best friend, Kitty, as they prick their fingers, preparing to sign a contract of friendship in blood: "We sat cross-legged on our Thrones, knee to knee to knee. Above us rose the pines, tall and muscular in their dark, prickly coats. Above them the sky was drumskin white."
It is a small passage, but contained within it is the hallmark of a master storyteller. The children are the base of a triangle that rises inexorably above them and continues to rise "muscular," "dark," and "prickly," much like the characters themselves, until it hits the blank vellum surface of a sky on which nothing yet has been written, upon which they have the unique ability, in letters made of their own blood, to inscribe a tale.
"For why are we here if not to try to fathom one another? Not through facts alone, but with the full extent of our imaginations. And what are stories if not tools for imagining?" Ava asks at the novel's end. And that is what this story is -- a tool for imagining, a means of fathoming. A story cannot rescue, Ava discovers; it cannot even rectify in any meaningful way. But it can fathom, and though it is unclear, even at the end of the novel, if Ava understands it is her own identity she has been fathoming -- that she has in essence invented Fred as a tool to this fathoming -- that by the act of retelling she has erased him -- it is, or should be, clear to the reader who is missing from this book. Fred, even in his "Fredly way," does not speak, and his silence, to borrow the cliché, is deafening.
No Book but the World by Leah Hager Cohen