by Raywat Deonandan
July 4, 2005
W ith some notable exceptions, academics, particularly literary scholars, are not always the best equipped to write interesting fiction: they can get too caught up in the technique of writing, often at the expense of the heartfelt purpose that is necessary to engage an audience divorced from specialized interests of the ivory tower. Hence I admit to some trepidation as I read the first few pages of Raymond And Hannah, the debut novel by Stephen Marche, who is pursuing his PhD in English. Fortunately, this smart, original love story sheds most of its pretenses and settles into a parsimonious, Zen-like narrative. Like a choan, the tale is told in stanzas that suggest a deeper meaning. It is the story of Raymond, an English doctoral student, who has a week-long affair with Hannah. But then Hannah, who is rediscovering her Jewishness, leaves to spend nine months in Jerusalem and their fragile love must be sustained through emails.
Marche has chosen to tell his small story by using the peculiar visual technique of titling each stanza within the book’s margin. For example, a portion titled “Conversation in a taxi” consists of exactly four lines of dialogue which, not surprisingly, are spoken inside a taxi:
“I live in a basement.”
“I have an attic.”
“Can we go there?”
“I think yes, there.”
This technique suggests a degree of tiresome urban literary self-importance. But, thankfully, gloriously, the novel lifts itself above such mediocrity and becomes something unique: a modern romance for the age of globalization. Our protagonists, struggling to touch within the ever-expanding isolations of modern city life, collide in a happenstance of sexuality and mistake their gonadal good fortune for organic love. Romance interrupted by a separation of thousands of miles, yet sustained through email, is characteristic of our time and place, wherein the illusion of intimacy can happily and invisibly co-opt the reality of solitude.
A failing is that the characters intellectual diversionssuch as Raymonds thesis on Robert Burtons The Anatomy of Melancholy, the description to which Marche has dedicated much timeare simply uninteresting. Married with the questionable relevance of a handful of stanzas seemingly unrelated to the plot, these diversions contribute to the spectre of literary pretension that haunts this otherwise mature narrative.
Despite these stumbles, Raymond And Hannah is an intriguing experience. If all stories are essentially love stories, then as the most Spartan of love stories, perhaps Marches novel is an elemental literary impulse 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.