Each week Critical Mass highlights an exemplary review by a National Book Critics Circle member. Here, in a review that appeared at The Quarterly Conversation, Matthew Tiffany reviews Laird Hunt's Ray of the Star.
Ray of the Star opens with two nods in the direction of French writer Georges Perec. The first, a quotation from his 1967 novel A Man Asleep, serves as entry to the story: Now you must learn how to last. A man named Harry has suffered the unexpected deaths of some people, likely family members, about whom he cares very much. The narrative jumps ahead an unspecified amount of time to Harry abandoning his home, his job, everything. He's running away from everything with nowhere to go. Like the protagonist of A Man Asleep, this is a man realizing he no longer knows how to live — all that is left now is learning how to last.
Harry — seemingly at random, though of course it will turn out later that it isn't — chooses to fly to a foreign city pictured on a postcard he received years ago, before the accident. He bounces between various encounters and digressions, finding himself drawn into a labyrinth of relationships and potential danger. Hunt reveals Harry as someone confused about his state of mind — “as he continued his daily wanderings he realized 1) that given the level of sustained autoanalysis he was engaged in and no matter how much he might in his self-pitying, aspire to it, 'mad' was probably inaccurate and that 2) well, there was no 2) but there might be, and that was something” — and only vaguely aware of his probable post-traumatic stress disorder.
Though the individual scenes of this book are written in a way that suggests a relevance to Harry's larger story, they also come across as digressions, one of those “wasn't that strange” moments that can come to an individual in a foreign environment and in times of extreme suggestibility. Hunt uses this style of extreme digression to give the reader a sense of the state of Harry's mind without resorting to more blunt descriptions. Thus the descriptions circle around their targets like a chalk outline at a crime scene: the reader is left with all the details around horrific acts and nearly unbearable emotions, leaving those blank spaces all the more stirring for not being pinned down by an attempt to quantify them. They are chalk outlines as Picasso might have drawn them.
As with Hunt's previous novel, The Exquisite, the story curves and winds through various fantastic scenes, with the reader's attention being drawn to oddities both for amusing and chilling effect. Life at this point clearly doesn't make a great deal of sense for Harry, and so the narrator is compelled to tell Harry's story as a fairy tale. Surprisingly, though, Hunt's approach often offers us realistic details and inner workings: for instance, while taking a stab at being a “living statue” street performer, Harry (who, suggestively, is posing as Don Quixote) strikes up a conversation with a centaur:
It was only when Alfonso, speaking over his own mug of coffee, said, “I have something to show you,” that Harry remembered what it was he had planned to say as soon as he arrived — “There are several things I'd like to ask you, Mr. Centaur,” — but instead he found himself murmuring, “It's very dark out,” and following Alfonso to the far side of the room, and through a narrow blue door that gave onto what it took Harry a moment to realize was a garage of sorts, perhaps even — the stone seemed weathered enough — an old carriage house, in the center of which sat a large yellow submarine, more or less the one The Beatles had had their adventure in, the one that had been so useful in the struggle against the blue meanies, the one connected to the song, which he had never liked very much and which now raged very nearly out of control in his head before subsiding, slightly, then more fully, like someone had thrown a fade switch, “You can get inside it,” Alfonso said,
“It's the yellow submarine,” Harry said,
“A model, made of chicken wire and paper mache, but a good one,”
“The song…” Harry said.
“It goes away, I should know, I live with the thing,”
Each of the chapters continues with the same structure as above — that is, each chapter is composed in the form of just one sentence. Hunt's technique is neither off-putting nor difficult; what it achieves is to propel the story forward in a way that gives Hunt unusual control over at what moments of the story the reader pauses.
In Ray of the Star Hunt presents lot of ideas at odds with each other. Some of the shifts of character pivot on these characters experiencing similar sentiments and emotions at the same time, and the limits of any shared experience lend the story emotional weight. It's a difficult trick, to write about the ways in which our traumas can overlap with each other without avoiding the maudlin or resorting to platitudes and remarkable coincidences. Stephen Dixon made it work in his novel Interstate; he took a similar starting point (the experiences that follow having your children die before you) and wrote multiple “takes” of the scenes that follow that moment — ultimately, the reader gets to experiences a sort of nightmare version of the movie Groundhog Day.
By contrast Ray of the Star follows just one “telling” of the fallout from a great loss, but rather than throwing the shit at the fan and then diagramming where it splatters, Hunt wants us to inhabit the trauma. When you're watching a father's anguish, you're seeing the suffering; when you've got a narrative like this, where there's equal measure of uncertainty and “would that really happen?” moments, it hews closer to the chaos of living through that trauma. Rather than reading about Harry's journey, the reader feels a part of the story, like a ghost hovering around the proceedings.
It's not all tragedy repercussions. Harry and Solange — the silver woman — fall for each other while being pushed around the city together, lying down inside the yellow submarine. There's no question that Hunt is taking a risk; it's a narrow line between the bizarre and a quirky cleverness, but Hunt walks it well. The comedic asides and quirky moments work to leaven the sorrow in a way that both provides relief and simultaneously amplifies the sadness. Meanwhile, Hunt is insidiously upping the ante with a suspense that reaches a scene (no spoilers here) that provided this reader with a genuine, full-on shiver of alarm. The final third of the book moves from that scene into a level of suspense that can only come from a heartfelt investment in the characters; that this book brings the reader to that suspense covertly, in defiance of genre and stereotype, make Ray of the Star another strong work from one of our most creative writers.