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
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.