I finished Donigan Merritt's Possessed by Shadows on the plane back to Dallas from LA. That was Saturday. I'm still thinking about the book. I'm not a reviewer, which may become quite clear here in a moment, but here are my thoughts. It's a story about Molly and Tom Valen, their journeys into the ultimate crisis of life and love. Since I'm often backwards and out-of-sorts, I'll discuss the ending first. I read a couple of reviews of this book wherein the reviewer complained about the ending, that it was too abrupt. I don't understand the complaint, especially since the text prepares a reader so well for it with the mentions of the Kundera book, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, as well as several other, smaller clues. This book ends in the only way it should, with Tom Valen scrambling down a mountain trail, compelled toward a pain by his inescapable humanity. To ascribe some manner of expansive purpose, meaning, or overwhelming sense of rightness to the final few sentences would be to violate what Tom is about. The writer is wise enough to allow a sort of mystery, that space where inference invades. To elevate Tom above the physicality of the situational facts and baldly sum up the situation would be a mistake that Donigan Merritt is too smart to make.
Structurally, this novel is fairly radical. It consists of contrapuntal and slowly converging narratives told in the alternating voices of Molly and Tom. Again, the necessity of the structure becomes apparent as the deeper meanings of the text evolve. The back and forth nature of the narrative prevents occasionally opposed (or different) viewpoints from drowning each other out. If the novel were written in a singular voice, the author would lose the ability to convey both approaches to the problems experienced. The structure also allows for an overlapping time line that's integral to the keeping of a secret till nearly the very end, though that is well-prepared for as well. Nothing stumbles into the text here. There are many philosophical meditations throughout, but the book never preaches or devolves into a scholastic lecture. The skill at which these heady and large thoughts are presented through the narrators is to be admired. These thoughts never trump story in this novel. Molly is not the philosophical one, however she's the one who often makes these points, often describing them as Tom's belief. This is an interesting tactic. I suppose it forces a certain non-philosophical language in the rendering of the philosophical concept. Another smart decision. What draws a reader up the slopes of the narrative isn't the philosophical aspects or the weighty thought, however. The richness of Molly and Tom, their interaction and the currents of their lives is what compels the reading. Possessed by Shadows is a book about humans. As such, it brings a reader close to its message in ways that ultimately matter, ways that some modern writers are abandoning.
I often look for a richness of language in the books that I enjoy. It's not necessarily found here in a way I had preconceived. The details are always in motion, however, and described with evocative word juxtapositions, most often in the description of place and setting, but the language never draws attention to itself. It doesn't distract with overt posturing. The most active descriptions, those that come to my mind anyway, are of water and light, how they interact with the place through which Molly and Tom move. Consider this, for instance:
The brown river was now silver and to look at it hurt our eyes. Even the gray endless concrete wall of high-rise apartments over the river in Petrzalka looked good in the blinding glare of sunlight washing across hectares of glass, like a glistening ancient city on some vast desert plain, a bright sun shielding the ugliness with incandescence. A long barge pursued the the river, beating against the strong current. A slipstream of turgid water raced past, straining channel markers. White birds hopped along the stone embankment, others cruised above the barge boat. A tram rattled along the riverfront street. Shoppers waited for the next one. A boy and girl kissed while they waited.
Both of the recurrent elements of water and light coalesce in this snippet. This paragraph embodies many of the elements of the entire text as I've seen them: the brief furor of beauty against an unyielding dark. The barge reflects a journey that isn't easy. As the text pulls a reader closer to the human elements, those things from which meaning springs, the boy and girl kissing for example, the quality of the environmental noise changes. The tram rattles into the scene. We often clatter in our approach of simple things. Prior to the rattle, we witness a wash of sunlight, a glistening city, a shielded ugliness, a pursuit, incandescence, a beating, water racing past, a straining, casual and indifferent movement of birds near and above, humans waiting, rattling, love. Read in this manner, this one paragraph encompasses many of the book's themes. Beauty and death couple. The unknowable subsists through the seen. One can let the book fall open to nearly any page and discover the same thing. It's extremely well-crafted, yes. A spare, factual prose lends mood to the setting. On a mountain trail or on the sheer face of a rock cliff, a thin rope holding one over death, one doesn't generally wax poetical, I imagine. One is concerned with facts: toeholds, ledges, the flaring of lactic acid, the sure clip of a carabiner. We find in this accumulation of detail, a realistic presentation of a narrative world and the flickering poof of the lives within it.
Ah yes, the death. It is everywhere. One reviewer called the book incredibly bleak and unrelenting. It is. It's also abundantly full of life, rich with yearning, thick with grief, glowing with love. In the paragraph that details the death the book is structured around, imagery shifts. The light and water are not to be found. Normal details of place found elsewhere are not presented here. Outside of the human elements, only wind remains. As life ends with a labored breath, the wind perhaps carries it away. This likely won't be the reading intended by the author, but the power of what's left, after all has been taken away, is attractive. An oblivious mountain wind lasts beyond the dribble of a human's last gasp. This is a fantastic writer at work here.
I ordered all of Donigan's books after reading this one. If you read it, you may well do the same thing. The elements of life that matter to humans concerned with living a human life can be found in this book: death, growth, betrayal, forgiveness, beauty, rage, love. These things, as they are in life, are often found commingled in single scenes, within single characters. There are many angles of approach. Just pick one and read. No path is better than the others. They all lead to a stark revelation, an elevation that's frightening or exhilarating depending on your equipment. What waits for us all is an unknown emptiness. How we spend our waiting is how we should be measured.