What I'm Going to Do, I Think

by Larry Woiwode
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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692

Woiwode’s first novel, What I’m Going to Do, I Think, is an absorbing character study of two newlyweds, each of whom is originally drawn to the other as opposites proverbially attract. Chris Van Eenanam, the protagonist, is a listless mathematics graduate student, an unhappy agnostic preoccupied with his unsure footing in the world. Put simply, he lacks vocation or a consuming vision of what he should do with his life. The novel’s title thus accentuates his self-doubt and indecision, echoing something Chris’s father once said in observing his accident-prone son: “What I’m going to do, I think, is get a new kid.” Ellen Strohe, his pregnant bride, is a tortured young woman, dominated by overbearing grandparents who raised her after her parents’ accidental death. Neither she nor Chris can abide her grandparents’ interference and meddling.

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Little action takes place “live” before the reader, as Woiwode’s psychological realism deploys compacted action and flashbacks and the patterned repetition of certain incidents to carry the reader along as effortlessly as might a conventionally chronological narrative. The reader learns “what happens,” primarily as events filter through the conversations and consciousness of Chris and Ellen during their extended honeymoon at her grandparents’ cabin near Lake Michigan. This tantalizing use of personal perception and vaguely unreliable memory has become a trademark of Woiwode’s characterization. It permits him wide latitude in choosing when and how to reveal his characters’ motivations and responses to the events that shape their lives.

In their retreat from the decisions that Chris chooses not to face, the couple, now intimate, now isolated, confront a grim modern world that has lost its faith in a supreme being fully in control of the created universe. This loss is exemplified most dramatically in the lives of Chris and Ellen as they try to sort out the meaning of affection and fidelity in their new relationship as husband and wife and as potential parents. Ellen’s pregnancy is, at first, a sign of a beneficent nature’s approval of their union, but later, as each has a premonition of their unborn child’s stillborn delivery, it becomes a symbol of an ambivalent world’s indifference to their marriage and its apparent fruitlessness.

In the absence of a compensatory faith even in humankind (a secondary faith arguably derived from faith in God), Chris and Ellen come to realize that they have lost their ability to navigate a hostile world with a lasting, meaningful relationship. The “student revolutions” of the 1960’s had promised social enlightenment and unadorned love, a secure replacement for the tottering scaffold of religious faith and civic duty that undergirded their parents’ generation. They discover, however, that neither science, as represented in Chris’s mathematics pursuits, nor nature, as a metaphor for the modern world’s hostility to metaphysical certainty, can fill the vacuum left by a waning faith in God or humankind. Such a committed faith, whose incessant call is to fidelity and perseverance, cannot survive without passion or understanding in the perplexity of the young married couple’s inexperience in living.

In a suspenseful epilogue that closes the novel with an explanation of what has happened to them in the seven years following their marriage, Chris and Ellen return to their honeymoon cabin. Chris retrieves the rifle that he has not touched in many years, and, as the action builds toward what will apparently be his suicide, he repeats to himself the beginning of a letter (perhaps a suicide note) that he could not complete. “Dear El, my wife. You’re the only person I’ve ever been able to talk to and this is something I can’t say. . . . ”

As he makes his way to the lake, he fires a round of ammunition into a plastic bleach container half-buried in the sand. In the novel’s enigmatic final lines, Chris fires “the last round from his waist, sending the bullet out over the open lake.” This curious ending seems intended by Woiwode to announce Chris’s end of indecision, a recognition that his life can have transcendent meaning only in embracing fully his marriage commitment to Ellen.

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