July 2015

John Anspach


Joyful by Robert Hillman

Robert Hillman's Joyful contains very little joy. There is plenty of despair, madness, mourning, jealousy, violence, and suicidal thinking, but joy is an emotion reserved for the characters on the peripheries of this novel. I'm not complaining about this. If anything, the absence of happiness to which characters commit themselves so wholeheartedly stems from their hope to preserve what made them happy in the past. It's a futile hope, but it lends itself nicely to moments of ravishing, compelling prose, and hilariously human attempts at restoring life to the dead.

Joyful begins with the death of Leon's wife, Tess, and then delves into the history of their courtship and eventual marriage. Leon and Tess do not have a typical marriage, nor does Leon have the typical sexual desire that makes for what is thought to be a typical marriage. In fact, Leon does not experience any sexual arousal at all. Instead, stemming from an experience he had with Sarah -- his older, fashionable half-sister -- at the age of eight, Leon unsexually desires to see women dressed in his collection of women's designer gowns, dresses, shoes, and jewelry. "We are immortal in moments," Leon says, "immortal for as long as the moments last, out of the reach of all harm and disappointment." For Leon, achieving this kind of immortality is possible by flawlessly matching a woman and a dress. But it is also a kind of immortality that will revive the memory of Sarah, long dead because she "hoarded sleeping pills and died in her garden under a blue sky." Death and absence are replaced by prose that revives a particular kind of beauty: an immortal image of the dead with all their flaws, including their mortality.

Leon's desire and profession both deal with the art of preserving. He tries to preserve the memory of Sarah by "flawlessly" dressing Tess; by trade he sells rare books, preserving the words of long dead authors; and after Tess's death, he tries to preserve a particular memory of her by collecting everything she ever owned, wore, bought, and read. Unfortunately, his plan for keeping a certain memory of her is frustrated when he discovers an email correspondence between her and Daniel, a Polish poet and her lover. At this point, the power of words meets the impotency of words. Tess's death is bearable for Leon as long as he can remember her as "Tess rescued from the oafs on whom she lavished her appetites, Tess saved from her fevers, Tess at the piano in the black and grey Madame Grès evening dress." Sexual appetites are too vulgar and threatening for a man who has none; her sexual impulses threaten the possibility that Tess's beauty was reserved for Leon alone. Her sexuality has no place in the museum Leon wants to build for her. With descriptions of everything she ever owned, bought, and wore, Leon hopes to recover and preserve her beauty. But words and descriptions have no power to protect Leon from the knowledge that Tess wanted to give herself to someone else. Beneath Tess's beauty, there may have been what Leon calls "flaws."

Though Leon cannot ignore the truth of Tess's past, he does come up with a plan to alter it. Leon knows Tess snuck away to his country estate, known as "Joyful," to meet Daniel. So Leon goes to Joyful to confront the truth about Tess, and he intends to destroy that truth by killing Daniel and purchasing the memories of those who knew about her and Daniel. The absurdity of Leon's actions is strangely believable -- he buys a gun, he pays Tess's acquaintances to sign a contract in which they give up their right to speak of Tess. And his means for attempting to purify his memory of Tess are both sad and hilarious: he sands every surface of the Joyful mansion and uses that surface to write one long letter to her. Leon is a sad, lovelorn jester, writing a love letter to an absent queen on the walls of an old, abandoned kingdom; and the queen will never return to contradict him.

When Leon confronts Daniel, Daniel explains why Tess fell in love with him: "Tessie told herself a story about me. That's what she falls in love with." One of the greatest struggles in this novel is who gets to tell Tess's story. Daniel tells a story about her that includes all her flaws, but notes her sexual attractiveness as her distinguishing characteristic. Leon tells a story of beauty unmarred by sex. Leon's definition of beauty is the "rusting shut of any entrance to hell, even the hell of anonymous beasts." While Daniel may be telling a story of Tess that keeps the gates of hell wide open by Leon's definition, the story Leon wants to preserve ignores Tess's commonness -- the body that makes possible any story of love, adventure, beauty, or jealousy. He attempts to preserve her beauty as if she was only made of beauty. As he drinks himself half to death in the attempt, he stares into a darkness that accompanies choosing "to believe what cannot be true."

Stories and lives both require a beginning and an end. Joyful begins with the end of a life, and the story unfolds as a struggle over what that life meant. There is lots of drinking, crying, smoking, fucking, and shaming. It's a strangely funny, compelling, and sad novel, the beauty of which is found in searching for what remains once beauty has disappeared.

Joyful by Robert Hillman
Text Publishing Company
ISBN: 978-1922079916
352 pages