Author Joshua Henkin seems obsessed with character-building. The first paragraph of the bio on his Web site doesn’t detail his life, but the lives of his parents. He then tells two short stories – one of his father, a Jewish soldier during WWII, convincing German troops that they were about the lose the war; one of himself at age four asking his nursery school class who the heck Santa Claus was, anyway.
“These are what I like to call ‘pleasing contradictions,’ and they are, it seems to me, the lifeblood of a fiction writer,” Henkin notes. He has the chops of a professor (indeed, he teaches writing at Sarah Lawrence College and Brooklyn College), but his most recent novel, Matrimony (Vintage, 2007) is not a heady tutorial but a showcase of Henkin’s deftly drawn fictional characters.
This sounds bleak, but in fact there’s much more to Matrimony than melodrama. Henkin incorporates a sense of humor into his prose from the book’s opening chapter. When Julian reaches freshman orientation at Graymont College, he encounters a contraceptive counseling session in which he’s asked to test the products.
“Julian stood up,” reads the passage. “Was he supposed to stand up? Did you eat spermicide sitting down or standing up? Nicole was only a junior, but she seemed so much older than he was, so wise in the ways of the body and to the various flavors of spermicide and to the reasons there should be various flavors of spermicide.”
Where Henkin succeeds, over and over, is in his ability to reveal his characters through mundane detail. Julian, whose relationship with his wealthy parents is respectful, if staid, relates a kernel from his childhood: “In November of 1972, his mother had taken him to the voting booth and let him pull the lever, but she wouldn’t allow him to vote for McGovern and he sulked all the way home. He was four: What did he know? But he sensed intuitively that he wasn’t for Nixon.” It’s just background, the sort of fleeting memory that could pass through anyone’s head, and yet it lets the reader in on something significant: Julian is, fundamentally, a Democrat, while his parents are Republicans. Therefore, tension exists between the parents and their offspring, even if this tension never works its way into conversation or plot.
We learn about Mia in the same way. Before Julian meets her, his friend Carter offers this observation: “… she’s sophisticated. Mia from Montreal doesn’t call attention to her body. She’s hot by not being hot. That’s how the heat gets generated.” Interestingly, Henkin allows Carter’s girlfriend, Pilar, to remain sexy and distant. The reader never learns much about her, other than her name is “a sexy name—an appropriate name, Carter pointed out, because it was attached to a sexy person.” Pilar is held at arms length, cool and collected until she and Carter finally separate and she’s removed from the novel.
Mia, on the other hand, becomes all too human. She is probably the book’s most human character, though it’s likely Julian—a struggling writer and native New Yorker—with whom Henkin most relates. While still in college, Mia learns her mother is battling breast cancer. It’s that illness that binds Mia and Julian together, and when Mia suggests they should marry before her mother dies, Julian agrees. This early marriage seems to stunt them both: Julian attempts to write a novel but makes slow progress; Mia attempts a PhD but is unable to complete her dissertation. They plug along, both unsatisfied and resentful until a surprise confession from Carter forces a rift between them.
But even this point of conflict is not the crescendo one would expect. Instead, it’s a bump in the road. Matrimony is a book about bumps in the road, the everyday hurdles of life. There are splashes: Carter makes millions in the dot.com industry, for example. But that’s peripheral, incidental. Much of the plot has the feel of being culled from a journal or photo album: it’s a collection of moments in which the characters go through the motions of ordinary lives. They fail and then they succeed. The failures are never as devastating as could be expected; the successes are never as cathartic. The story’s end is an end, but not the end. Nothing is conclusive, it’s just that the photo album ran out of pages. There’s something refreshingly real about this approach—do readers really buy into the big romantic gesture, the dark horse who wins the race or the Hollywood ending? Probably not. Then again, we tend to read to escape our own mundane lives, so how much of an escape is it to be drawn into the minutia of someone else’s day-to-day plodding?
I pose this question, but personally, I’ve not yet settled on an answer. Henkin handles his subject matter with mastery, and he does manage to transcend the ordinary with his very commitment to the ordinary. Two examples jumped out at me: The first is when Mia has to watch her mother die of breast cancer. The author does an admirable job of portraying a young woman’s anger, fear and confusion in the face of this tragedy. There are no crying jags or deathbed soliloquies. Instead, she clings to Julian and mistrusts the sincerity of everyone around her. She also carries with her, into her thirties, a fear that she’ll contract the disease.
“She laid out her articles on the floor of their bedroom and stamped on the pages as if they were bubble wrap,” Henkin writes. “Then she removed her T-shirt and bra and stood half-naked in front of Julian, hands on her hips, staring at him. ‘Look at me.’” The passage is both uncomfortable and moving, and it strikes me that Henkin has nailed the emotion without a lot of setup or dialogue or soul-searching. However, later, when Mia faces a personal scare, there’s a certain disconnect. She’s afraid, she’s relieved, she makes rash decisions. It all happens so quickly, like the author suddenly felt compelled to explore the whole of the cancer experience.
But why breast cancer? Why this particular disease which so specifically targets women? Maybe Henkin relishes the challenge of writing not only in a woman’s voice but attempting to put himself in the mind of the opposite gender within the context of an experience that makes a women face both her mortality and her feminine identity. It’s a bold move, sure, but does the author’s risk pay off? I’m not sure. Some readers will find that his text resonates with them. Others will decide he missed the mark.
One thing that can be said is that Henkin makes good use of crises and anxieties as the vehicles that propel Julian and Mia in their relationship. They are driven not by their desires but by their fears, and this is so ultimately human. It can also be said that Henkin doesn’t shy away any edge—which brings me to the second example of his mastery within Matrimony. The author uses the character of Julian, a writer of talent if not self-assuredness, to explore what, exactly makes writing good. “Chesterfield had talent, but the book made me realize that it takes more than talent and it takes more than luck,” Julian says of his college professor. “Sometimes a writer’s personality gets in the way.”
Henkin’s personality does not get in the way of his work, though it’s likely he’s questioning this aspect of his craft. The author reveals himself as much as his characters here. He’s the student and the teacher, the promise realized and the promise unfulfilled. Happily, Matrimony is mostly promise realized. Overall, it’s an enjoyable book with nuggets of wisdom delivered free of lecture and chock full of genuine, unsentimental detail.
Joshua Henkin reads at Malaprops on Sunday, Sept. 14. The 7 p.m. event is free. Info: 254-6734.
—Alli Marshall, A&E reporter