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A Window Across the River

by Brian Morton (Harvest, 2003, 2004)

A Window Across the River is perhaps the most astutely moving book about artists that I have read. Neither of Mr Morton's characters is an artist artist; one is a photographer, the other a writer. But both are good-hearted people who struggle to keep their egos decent, and that struggle tells us more about the creative life (if I may be excused the phrase) than any portrait of the narcissistic megalomaniacs who so often stand in for artists in fiction. Nora and, to a greater extent, Isaac find it all to easy to imagine the recognition that would follow their success if only they could attain success.

It is perhaps unsurprising that, while he has a few very interesting things to say about the photographer's life, Mr Morton's focus is on Nora, his writer. Nora is the heroine here. Isaac has the leading man's role, but if the novel works from his point of view often enough to justify saying that A Window Across the River is about both characters, the attention that Nora's career as a writer gets is nowhere balanced by corresponding explorations of Isaac's. Any complaints that we might have about this unequal treatment are silenced by the extraordinarily insightful richness of Mr Morton's reports from the desk of a writer of fiction. His novel addresses a problem that has been troubling not just writers but, more acutely, their friends and relations. What are we to make of the dread distillation, so treasured by readers but so painful to subjects, of real people's personalities into the dark cordial of fictional characters? Insofar as art has a moral dimension, what responsibility does the writer bear for appropriating the lives of near and dear for public consumption, almost always presented in a less than flattering light?

Nora has learned early on that her stories have a surprising power to wound.

In daily life, she was a kind person at least she hoped she was. But in her stories, she wasn't kind at all. When she sat down at the keyboard, it was as if someone else took over: someone who'd had the same experiences she'd had, but who saw the world with a cold eye.

This wouldn't have been a problem if she wrote about invented people in invented situations. But when she wrote, she became a cannibal, feeding off the lives of acquaintances, friends, and loved ones. The only time she felt excited as a writer was when she was writing about people she knew, and, almost always, she gravitated to their secrets and their frailties. The things they feared about themselves, the things they hoped no one would ever notice Nora had a gift for divining them. It was a gift she didn't possess at all in her day-to-day life; it was something that emerged only in her fiction. Her fiction was more perceptive than she was, and more ruthless.

Between this passage and the next one that I've quoted falls the bulk of the novel. Without having any very good reason for doing so, Nora rekindles her relationship with Isaac, a photographer with whom she broke up five years ago, over an abortion that he did not want her to have. When he asked her to think about the "new person" they could bring into existence, Nora replied, "I just want to bring myself into existence." That is what A Window Across the River is about. Five years later, Nora has not really begun to bring herself into existence. She is involved with a man whom she wants to leave, but can't, for pity's sake. And she is worn out by not writing.

Although she has published a few stories, Nora has felt unable to pursue her calling as a writer of fiction because it requires her to hurt the people she knows and cares about. From time to time, she makes notes toward a story, but aside from these sketches her professional writing is of the "left hand" variety, mostly rewrites for medical manufacturers. About to turn thirty-five, she endures a dark night of the soul in a distant hotel room; or, rather, she does not endure it: she calls Isaac at three in the morning. "... it was one of those insomniac nights when it seems clear to you that your life has come to nothing, that you've failed at everything that matters and there's no point in trying again, and you know that it might help to talk to someone but you're not sure there's anyone who'd be willing to listen, and you lie there thinking Is it possible to be any more alone than this?"

Isaac, in short, isn't so much a lover as a midwife. Nora does a fine job of disguising this from herself as well as from him, but events make this more difficult to do. For one thing, her beloved aunt, Billie, is very ill, and possibly dying. Billie, once a dancer and long since the first family member to stake out a place in New York, has been bereft since the death of her husband. Outwardly cheerful, Billie has allowed her life to descend into stretches of watching television punctuated by moments of caring for her ageing cats. Ever since the death of her mother, when Billie proved herself to be dramatically incapable of taking care of her niece, Nora has had an unvoiced suspicion that she would one day take care of Billie, and that day seems to be at hand.

Isaac, meanwhile, has been trying to restart his career as an art photographer. A gallery in New Jersey he lives in Englewood, with a grand view of the city he no longer inhabits has offered to give him a show, and although he hasn't taken any photographs recently he throws himself into the task of assembling a portfolio.

Working on the story, Nora felt as if her mind was flooded with light. She had a protagonist she cared about deeply, and, although she knew the main outlines of the event she wanted to write about, she didn't know the specifics, so she was free to invent. She was typing gaster than her computer could handle it kept giving off little beeps.

In the story, Gabriel took a train to New Haven, but it broke down just outside Norwalk, and he got in three hours late, weak from hunger, and it was the height of summer and he felt swoony in the heat, and when he met up with his sister she was with two friends, Yale students, one of whom was so beautiful that he became tongue-tied, the other of whom was so quick and articulate and confident about her future that Gabriel felt slow-witted and old, and when he and his sister were finally alone, he failed to say the things he'd planned to because he felt so weak and worn and insecure, and because he was afraid that his little sister, whom he had always secretly considered more intelligent than he was, would win any argument that he launched in this depleted state. Instead of thinking about her and what she needed, he could only think about himself and his deficiencies, and he didn't say a word. In the story, he saw her again the next day, at breakfast, just before she was supposed to meet her plane, and she seemed angry and on the verge of tears, and it dimly occurred to him that she was upset because he hadn't helped her find reasons not to join the cult, that she'd wanted him to, but by this time it was too late, and they ruined their breakfast with a stupid argument about their parents, and they never saw each other again.

After an hour, she'd almost forgotten that these details were her own inventions. Or rather, she hadn't forgotten, but she didn't care. If Isaac had woken up and volunteered to tell her what really happened, she wouldn't have wanted to hear it, because whatever really happened couldn't have been as real as her story.

Eventually, Nora finishes off the story. She is more than just happy with it, and when it comes time to put the story in the box along with all the other unpublished manuscripts, she finds that she can't do it.

She didn't want to do that anymore. If that was what it meant to be good to Isaac, then she couldn't be good to him anymore. She'd have to finish this story, and then she'd have to ask him to read it.

This moment is the quiet climax of A Window Across the River: it is Nora's declaration of intent to be a writer after all, no matter what. On the basis of a first reading, I can't say how closely Mr Morton has worked Nora's progress to this decision, but when the moment comes it feels anything but arbitrary. Her reunion with the older Isaac at the very moment of Billie's decline has bolted her from the dependent youthfulness in which the last shadows of childhood finally fade to dark. She can accept the possibility, finally, that Berryman's line, which she often quotes ruefully throughout the novel, might really apply to her:

Them lady poets must not marry, pal.

Although Nora doesn't contemplate keeping the story from Isaac, she could not plan more unfavorable circumstances for his doing so than the one he chooses. After a devastating blow at the Public Library, where he finds that his photograph has been cut from the exhibition for reasons of limited space, he makes his way uptown to Nora's flat, where he very resentfully finds her writing. He is quietly outraged.

She'd been too tired to join him at what they both thought would be a special occasion for him, but she hadn't been too tired to write.

He insists on reading what she has been writing.

"It's funny you should ask. I was just thinking I'd like you to read it." She didn't look as though she'd been thinking this; in fact she looked as if the idea made her ill.

Nora gives Isaac the story, however, and leaves him alone in her apartment while he reads it. Mr Morton traces his curdling reaction. On the first page, he's flattered by Nora's description of him (he knows that it's about him right off.) By the fifth page, he's "touched" by the story's proof that Nora has listened closely enough to him to get to know, as it were, his sister. By the middle of the story, however, he is "uneasy," and at the end, he is "stunned. Stunned and unloved and alone."

Nothing in the story took place the way things had actually happened. The train had never broken down; the friends of Jenny's who'd cowed Isaac into silence didn't exist. But at the same time, Nora's intuitions were uncanny. His failure of nerve hadn't taken the form it took in the story, but he had had a failure of nerve. And he had let Jenny down.

He closed his eyes and thought about the way it had really happened the argument about the cheeseburger, the lost keys. The way things had really happened was so undramatic that a year from now he'd probably remember Nora's version more vividly than his own.

The most horrible thing was not the account of the visit, but what Nora seemed to be saying about it. She seemed to see his failure with Jenny as an emblem of his entire life. She had taken his life and shown it in the worst possible light.

If she was so eerily accurate about what had happened that night about the feel of it, if not the facts could she be wrong about his life, wrong about who he was?

She had taken his life and shown it in the worst possible light. We can understand Isaac's feeling this way, but is it correct? Is that what Nora has done? I don't think so. I think that Nora herself is mistaken about what she calls her "goblin." What she sees with her "cold eye" isn't the "worst," but simply the truth. That is what makes her stories compelling. That is why Isaac fears that his own recollection of what really happened in New Haven will be displaced by Nora's version, which is somehow, strangely, more comprehensive. Notice that Isaac does not accuse Nora of making up wicked lies; what hurts him is that she has caught him out. As to presenting him "in the worst possible light," what does this mean?

You really have only to imagine what it would be like to read an interesting story about you. Not the kind of story that, wishing to be commemorated, you would commission anyone to write. Not the monument that would announce to the world the marvelousness of you. You know that you wouldn't look at such a monument if you were not the subject. The kind of story that you would look at well, imagine how its subject felt.

Some writers of fiction not all by any means, but more in recent times than ever before, it seems make art out of the invasion of the privacy of others. Are we complicit in this assault when we read their stories avidly and praise them to our friends? Of course we are. Ought we to stop? Of course not. But we shouldn't just stand by, either. What we ought to recognize is the nature of the writer's achievement, which is not just the invasion of privacy. As Nora's story about Isaac tells us, the invasion is often virtual. Nora knows very little of Isaac's trip to New Haven, but what she does know about it, together with what she knows about Isaac generally and about the world on top of that allows her to imagine a version of the trip that is closer to its essential truth than the actual facts of the journey. Nora can't be charged with having "stolen" Isaac's story; rather, she has divined it.

She has divined it by looking beneath the web of social diplomacy that makes cosmopolitan life possible. When I was growing up, it was fashionable, in the manner of young persons' fashions, to decry the hypocrisy of adult life, but we learned for ourselves in the bumpy late Sixties that a course of unmitigated honesty would never do, and in their way the Seventies were years of cobbling together a new and modern hypocrisy to take the place of our parents' and grandparents'. Daily life in a thriving city is a cascade of what used to be called white lies, polite phrases that are perfectly sincere even if their face value is almost nothing. We pat our friends on the back when they celebrate successes; we bite our tongues so as not to reveal our resentment, our misgivings about our own worth, our desperate desires. When a woman announces that she is pregnant, how many others does she make wretched? It can't be helped, and in any case the wretched would hardly feel better if they could give way to their wretchedness in a public manner. We pretend that there is no wretchedness and then we devour fiction in order to rub our tongue, as it were, over the wretchedly intimate interior sore. We read about someone who steams with resentment; it would make no sense if we did not steam ourselves.

I fasten on resentment not because it is the most common private ugliness but because, once again, a thriving city generates enough resentment to make one wish it were as useful as a fossil fuel. Cities are all about achievement, even if it is only the achievement of a slightly better perch in a subway car. Achievements are frowned up in quiet backwaters because they make rustic ingenuousness insupportable, but in cities their being the point of everything, or at least of everyday life, means that city people must become expert lubricators, adept at sliding away from awkwardness. If it were not for honest fiction, we might all forget what we're doing.

Someday, I hope, we will learn to preserve those feelings of flattery and of being "touched" with which Isaac begins reading Nora's story alongside the later misgivings and the stunned sense of exposure. We will learn that lending oneself to fiction as a subject is not unlike leaving one's body to science, unpleasant to be sure but conducive to a greater good. And instead of feeling sorry for those "unlucky" enough to be presented in the only possible light, we will envy the attention that has been lavished upon them and know that we would probably not look any better under the microscope. Until then, we shall have to re-read Brian Morton's very heartening novel. (February 2008) 

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