Although Matthew McIntosh’s book Well is described on its bookjacket as a novel, it initially seems to be one only in the loosest sense of the word. Rather than following a central protagonist or a handful of characters through a relatively tight narrative arc, Well introduces the reader to several characters in several different stories. Many of these characters go unnamed in the novel, and only a few of them are granted multiple appearances. At the same time, Well is clearly more than a collection of short stories, even a closely united collection of stories like Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1947).
The title itself is ambiguous; although an early character in the novel talks about how he metaphorically perceives his life as if it existed at the bottom of a well. Similarly, the idea of wellness, and being well or unwell, from a physical, spiritual, and moral standpoint, provides the connecting thematic thread that unites these disparate voices and situations. In his chapter “Fishboy,” readers meet a young college student and learn about his obsessive love for his high school classmate Emily Swanson, who has never reciprocated his affections. Nevertheless, the narrator has pursued Emily beyond all bounds of restraint, ignoring the threat of physical violence in her father and the restraining order levied by the law. Only at the end of the chapter do readers learn about his father’s desertion and begin to grasp the root of his problems.
Similarly, “Border” is about the friends and family left behind when a young man named Jim commits suicide. In Fishboy’s need to be with Emily, and in the questioning of each of the characters touched by Jim’s death, readers see a search for meaning and a need to impose order, to make sense of our existence.
Taken as a whole, Well is a commentary on the commonly shared malaise of modern existence; McIntosh seems to say that it is only through the sharing of stories and hearing the surrounding voices that individuals will be able to heal and progress in their lives.