Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1023
"I am writing a biography of Rachel's life, incorporating your autobiography and a little of my own—and together we might be writing a novel." So wrote Rosie Chang of the Department of English at Berkeley to Richard Durgin, novelist and former husband of the celebrated and deceased poet, Rachel Isaacs. Replying from Faridpur, Rajasthan, in India, Durgin, no longer writing and now operating a cabinetmaking business for diplomats in New Delhi, is intrigued, but not necessarily impressed: his sensitivity and cynicism co-exist in his Rimbaudlike exile, firing his recollections and quenching his literary ambitions. "I'm glad you think we may have a novel here," he writes. "I confess I no longer know what a novel is."
Lusts, Clark Blaise's most recent and remarkable book, is not the novel that Rosie Chang thinks she and Durgin may be writing. It is the novel born of Durgin's memories and misgivings about what a novel is…. Durgin, whom Rosie Chang had long give up trying to trace, begins their exchange, "Dear Rosie Chang: A long time ago, in a country far, far away, I was married to Rachel Isaacs. Whatever I have achieved in my life happened in those five years. She killed herself in our New York apartment, about ten feet from where I was watching a football game, nearly a dozen years ago."
Those five years, in Iowa and then in New York City, are the centrepiece of Lusts, the coordinate that Durgin moves toward, intersects, and then passes. But his correspondence with Rosie Chang, the principal narrative of the book, is not simply a novel masquerading as autobiography. It is, in many ways, a kind of anti-novel. The central device—an academic's request for information and an astonishing response—overcomes the contradiction of the world-weary, cynical narrator, unconvinced of the point of doing anything, who, ennui notwithstanding, still manages to sit down and sweat out a novel.
But it is also more than just a clever way around a literary dilemma. Indeed, Lusts is something of a ghost, haunting the literature that surrounds its own story. Rosie's biography and Durgin's own novels are at once informed—one imagines—by Durgin's recollections, and diminished—one suspects—by his honesty. Most art, Blaise seems to be saying, is the wrestling down of an artless truth, and so Durgin's memories are presented as off-the-cuff, unpremeditated, notes in a hurry. Only geniuses, he seems to believe, find the forms that at once possess the truth and let it fly. Durgin is no genius, or, if he is, his genius is somehow inextricably bound up with his failure. Not even Rachel, Durgin finally admits to Rosie, was a genius. "This," he writes, "is where my pain enters. If she wasn't a genius, if she lived on my side of the room, if we were knowable to one another, and especially if she relied on me and even loved me (as you say), then I am the villain of the piece. And my life here is an attempt at salvation."
And so it is Durgin's "life here," not Rachel's there—in Hollywood, in Italy, and most secretively and distantly, at her typewriter in New York City—that is the subject of Lusts. (p. 24)
If Lusts has a weakness, it is that Rachel Isaacs, whose presence moves through the novel, remains vague and faceless for too long. She is a kind of Beatrice throughout the long trek of Durgin's boyhood and college days. Blaise is at his best when Durgin, like a lone defenceman, is left one-on-one with an advancing character. When he takes on an entire city or university or decade, his generalities are rescued—sometimes only just—by the elegance of the writing. But by the time Rachel moves to the fore, Lusts has hit its graceful stride. As if done with mirrors, it becomes a novel that is never written, a biography that doesn't exist, an autobiography that is not about its author. Its final trompe l'oeil is that it is a superb piece of writing that could only have been written by Richard Durgin, failed writer.
Rachel Isaacs and Richard Durgin spent five years together, during which time her reputation as a poet soared, and his, as a novelist, hovered and slowly settled. Rummaging through his past, the same past that comprises the first half of Lusts, Durgin could not, apparently, find the vision to sustain his talent. Rummaging through a past not so literally her own, Rachel finds a vision—the Holocaust—that will touch every word she puts to paper. He carried on, while his wife, writing the poetry that "completely turned around" a bright Berkeley undergraduate, Rosie Chang, at a reading in 1968, confronted a reality that was finally too clear and cruel to bear. "She was a reality junkie," replies Richard when Rosie asks why Rachel killed herself, "and she died of an overdose."…
Lusts ends in Faridpur, with Durgin awaiting the arrival of his first wife's biographer. The epilogue, with its shift of person, reads like the first chapter of a novel, and one guesses that the last story to spin around the sun of Rachel Isaacs will be that of the affair between her biographer and husband. At last, in the novel that Rosie suspected they would end up writing, Richard's final gesture is one of destruction. He withholds a piece of information from Rosie Chang because, one assumes, there are some truths too private, too beautiful, too painful, or too grand to reveal.
Richard Durgin needs to keep something to himself; he fears that releasing it, even to a Rosie Chang, will make it smaller. Ambitious and artful, hellbent on a fiction that, as Alice Munro describes it on the dust jacket, is doing what fiction should do, Clark Blaise is not possessed of the same fears. Lusts is a wonderful creation. It exists, rather brilliantly, in a strange place where, had the idea come to a lesser writer, no story would have existed at all. (p. 25)
David MacFarlane, "The Ghost of an Idea" (reprinted by permission of the author), in Books in Canada, Vol. 12, No. 7, August-September, 1983, pp. 24-5.
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