by Raywat Deonandan
July 4, 2005
I once went to a party where I met a doctoral student in English literature who bored me to tears with talk of his thesis (on “despair in the works of Spenser”.) As painful as this was, the situation worsened when he was joined by another English doctoral student who added her insights on the “deconstruction of the post-Renaissance motif” or something like that. Now, English doctoral students are among my most favourite people –they tend to be engaged, intelligent and thoughtful– but listening to them talk to one another is less preferable than yanking out one’s pubic hairs with a tweezer.
I don’t know if Stephen Marche is an English doctoral student, but it would not surprise me if he were. The first few pages of Marche’s first novel, Raymond And Hannah, brought back terrifying memories of that evening in which I despaired for Spenser and for the humourless generations who have deconstructed his work. Fortunately, the terror was not sustained, as Marche’s smart, original love story quickly sheds most (though not all) of its literary pretense and settles into a tight, parsimonious and almost Zen-like narrative. And like a Zen choan, the tale is told in meta-poetic stanzas that hint at deeper meaning. It is the story of Raymond –an English doctoral student!– who has a week-long sexual affair with Hannah, who is seemingly a professional Jew, since her obsession with discovering Judaism is described as one would a vocation. After their week together, Hannah spends nine months in Jerusalem, and the pair must sustain their fragile love through emails. It is, however, as much a tale of life in the cities of Jerusalem and Toronto as it is one of romantic struggle.
Initially, one’s sensitivity to the stereotypical pretenses of English doctoral-ness is justified, as Marche has chosen to tell his small story by using a peculiar visual technique: he has titled each stanza within the book’s margin. For example, a portion titled “Conversation in a taxi” consists of exactly four lines of dialogue which are, not surprisingly, spoken inside a taxi as Raymond and Hannah begin their affair:
“I live in a basement.”
“I have an attic.”
“Can we go there?”
“I think yes, there.”
The eyes roll, the forehead is slapped and one settles in for an excruciating adventure in urban literary pretension. But –thankfully, surprisingly, gloriously– Raymond And Hannah lifts itself above such mediocrity and becomes something entirely unique: a truly modern romance for the age of globalisation. Our protagonists, like so many of us struggling to find human comfort within the ever expanding isolations of modern city life, collide in a happenstance of sexuality and mistake their gonadal good fortune for genuine organic human love. That their proto-love is interrupted by a separation of thousands of miles, yet sustained through daily, casual electronic communication, is a character of our specific time and place in history, wherein the illusion of intimacy can happily and invisibly co-opt the reality of solitude.
Raymond And Hannah is, of course, an imperfect work. With a plot that is necessarily thin, the narrative is flushed out with seemingly pointless asides. The titular pair takes a side trip to Hebron, site of Jewish-Palestinian violence. It is a ripe opportunity to suggest something revelatory and metaphorically about Hannah’s relationship with Raymond. Instead, the journey is notable only for a star cameo: “Ed Bradley from 60 Minutes waltzes through with his coffee.” But Marche’s true persistent failing is that the intellectual diversions of his protagonists are not very interesting. For example, Raymond’s thesis on Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy is particularly snooze-inducing, yet Marche has dedicated many paragraphs to its description and to the uninteresting quirks of Raymond’s thesis advisor. I’ve often said that writers writing about writers can be unbearably boring. I think the same applies to graduate students writing about the graduate student experience.
Despite these stumbles, Raymond And Hannah is an intriguing experience. It is said that all stories are essentially love stories. As the most Spartan of love stories, then, perhaps Raymond And Hannah is an elemental literary impulse, the purest of cogitative expressions upon which one might layer one’s own experiences and desires. For those who have loved and lost and loved again, and for those who have endured and reveled in the dramatic changes of being that life in a foreign place inspires, this is a story that will touch a place somewhere between the heart and the head, and perhaps even leave a smudge somewhere on the soul, as well.