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Heart Mysteries
Charles Baxter's The Feast of Love

by Doug Childers

Charles Baxter shifts effortlessly from Borgesian introspection to a documentary-style interviewer in his new novel about the seemingly indefinable qualities of love.

As Charles Baxter's new, exquisitely sophisticated novel begins, an insomniac novelist named Charles Baxter (who, like the real-life Baxter, lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan) leaves his house to take a late-night walk around the neighborhood. He is not, for the moment at least, an entirely happy man. Indeed, he is suffering, he tells us, from 'identity lapses' and feels 'glimmerless' (a wonderful coinage): "I write my name, Charles Baxter, my address, the county, and the state in which I live. I concoct a word that doesn't exist in our language but still might have a meaning, or should have one: glimmerless. I am glimmerless. I write down the word next to my name."

After wandering into the University of Michigan football stadium and discovering

The Feast of Love
Charles Baxter
312 pp.
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a couple is having sex on the fifty-yard line, the fictional Baxter goes back out onto the street and finds a neighbor--equally sleepless--sitting alone on a park bench. Bradley W. Smith, an amateur painter who owns a coffee shop named Jitters and lives with a dog named after himself, is secretly thought to resemble a toad by a variety of acquaintances, but as late-night companions go, he makes good company. They chat briefly about their insomnia, and then Bradley asks Baxter what the first sentence of his new novel will be. After Baxter tells him, we notice, quite readily, that it is almost exactly the same sentence that opened the novel we ourselves are holding. Then Bradley suggests a title: The Feast of Love.

So far, the novel promises to be a self-reflexive, Borgesian examination of identity (and the frailty and meagerness of one's sense of being), with multiple mirrors reflecting and thereby distorting images shared by the fictional and real-life Baxter. And the writing in these opening pages justifies our expectations: while the fictional Baxter's sense of self is in question, his perceptions are not; the nocturnal, almost elegiac prose is enhanced by Baxter's intoxicatingly enhanced perceptions, which shift our awareness onto Baxter himself. At times in the first few pages, (the real-life) Baxter's shocking, even intoxicating power to build his imagery into elaborate metaphorical structures verges on the baroque.

But then something happens that throws the novel in another direction altogether.


He sits up suddenly. "Listen, Charlie," he says. "I've got an idea. It'll solve all your problems and it'll solve mine. Why don't you let me talk? Let everybody talk. I'll send you people, you know, actual people, for a change, like for instance human beings who genuinely exist, and you listen to them for a while. Everybody's got a story, and we'll just start telling you the stories we have."

"What do you think I am, an anthropologist?" I mull it over. "No, sorry, Bradley, it won't work. I'd have to fictionalize you. I'd have to fictionalize this dog here." I pat Junior on the head. Junior smiles again: a very stupid and very friendly dog, but not a character in a novel.


Despite his protestations, though, the fictional Baxter does indeed let Bradley and his friends (his two ex-wives, a neighbor and a co-worker, to be more exact) tell their stories (all of them, in their different ways, about love), and the rhythm and focus of the text shift dramatically. Now, the 'glimmerless' fictional Baxter becomes merely an interviewer, prompting his characters to begin their stories and then quietly receding. The narrative voice, with Baxter's beautifully smooth, understated transitions between stories (so slick, so dead-on right), shifts from Borges and the baroque to something more like hard cuts in a loosely structured Eric Rohmer film. Indeed, Baxter's setups for each of the characters' stories are so stripped down and clean they almost have a clinical quality to them. They're mesmerizing and revelatory displays of Baxter's range as a writer, frankly, and they're wonderful counterpoints to the opening pages' lush, lyrical complexities.

Of course, because the fictional Baxter approaches each of his interview subjects individually, his text turns up a variety of amusingly contradictory statements among their pitch-perfect accounts--particularly between Bradley and his ex-wives. What Bradley thought was a transformative experience with his first wife in an animal shelter, for example, was in fact unimportant to her (she even suggests he made it up). While he fondly remembers the animal shelter visit as his gallant attempt to help her overcome her fear of dogs, she more happily remembers watching the woman who would become her lover leaping aggressively--even fiercely--for a line drive in a softball game. As usually happens in such situations, neither party is able to realize how different the other's experience was--or how, at heart, the experience delineates unnavigable chasms between lovers. For readers blessed with an omnipotent perch, though, the continuity of shared stories is delightfully, pointedly missing. At times, watching Baxter play his character's accounts subtly against each other, The Feast of Love feels like Raymond Carver directing Rashomon.

But Baxter's up to something far more complicated than merely that. He, in fact, wants to define--or at least have his characters define--love itself. It's not an easy task, as Bradley's neighbor (a philosophy professor, no less) acknowledges.


The problem with love and God, the two of them, is how to say anything about them that doesn't annihilate them instantly with the wrong words, with untruth. In this sense, love and God are equivalents. We feel both, but because we cannot speak clearly about them, we end up--wordless, inarticulate--by denying their existence altogether, and pfffffft, they die. (They can, however, come back. Because God is a god, when He is dead, He doesn't have to stay dead. He can come back if He chooses to. Nietzsche somehow failed to mention this.)


The neighbor is a Kierkegaard expert, but the same idea--that some vitally important concepts lie beyond the grasp of words--shows up in Wittgenstein as well (as he readily acknowledges), where its stark form ("What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence") seems to sound a stark warning for novelists writing about love. And indeed, isolated as individual voices, Baxter's characters appear inarticulate on the subject of love. But read together, they begin to define it surprisingly well, albeit indirectly. Through the diverse, conflicting stories about love and its various forms--sexual, self-reflected, paternal, maternal--we seem to get a greater understanding of the need for love and even perhaps something of its form(s). Ironically, for a novel that begins and ends in darkness, Baxter suggests the Platonic source of love is, at least metaphorically, light. In fact, Bradley's suggested title for the fictional Baxter's work-in-progress is taken from one of his paintings, whose subject, his neighbor tells us is light:


In contrast to his other paintings, which appeared to have been slopped over with mud and coffee grounds, this one, this feast of love, consisted of color. A sunlit table--on which had been set dishes and cups and glasses--appeared to be overflowing with light. The table and the feast had been placed in the foreground, and on all sides the background fell backward into a sort of visible darkness. The eye returned to the table. In the glasses was not wine but light, on the plates were dishes of brightest hues, as if the appetite the guest brought to this feast was an appetite not for food but for the entire spectrum as lit by celestial arc lamps. The food had no shape. It had only color, burning pastels, of the pale but intense variety. Visionary magic flowed from one end of the table to the other, all the suggestions of food having been abstracted into too-bright shapes, as if one had stepped out of a movie theater into a bright afternoon summer downtown where all the objects were so overcrowded with light that the eye couldn't process any of it. The painting was like a flashbulb, a blinding, cataract art. This food laid out before us was like that. Then I noticed that the front of the table seemed to be tipped toward the viewer, as if all this light, and all this food, and all this love, was about to slide into our laps. The feast of love was the feast of light, and it was about to become ours.


It's a measure of Baxter's immense skills as a writer, I think, that he manages to turn what might have been a shaggy-dog collection of loosely connected stories into a shockingly complex novel whose central purpose depends intimately on the union of diverse voices. A Feast of Love is, in short, a remarkable achievement.




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