Sunday, September 9, 2007

The Double Bind -- Chris Bohjalian

Lately, two types of novels have been filling up -- and flying off -- the shelves at local bookstores: historical fiction mysteries, romanticizing and enlivening the existences of long-dead queens, artists, and little known figures; and re-envisioned classics, wherein popular and beloved novels are reworked and retold to provide a more satisfactory ending, update the story for modern audiences, or a myriad of other reasons. In The Double Bind, the newest work by novelist Chris Bohjalian, the reader will find a little bit of both of these, and not much else worth noting.

Laurel Estabrook, our heroine, is a pretty, twenty-something social worker with a troubled past. During college, Laurel was the victim of an attempted rape, an attack which left her scarred and vulnerable and inclined to fall in love with father figures twice her age. She works at a homeless shelter in Vermont, tirelessly assisting those even less fortunate than herself, when she briefly encounters an elderly schizophrenic named Bobbie Crocker. Though Laurel's time with Bobbie is cut short -- he takes ill and dies early in the novel -- he has an incredible impact on her life. Bobbie, the reader discovers within the first chapter, was a talented photographer, and his collection of photos becomes the property of the shelter, as no known relatives exist to claim his belongings. Laurel takes on the arduous task of printing, sorting, and displaying Bobbie's artistry as a fundraiser for the shelter when things take a turn for the mysterious.

As Laurel explores Bobbie's photos, she starts to notice that many of the photos are taken on Long Island -- specifically, in spots around West Egg and East Egg that she recognizes as related to the Buchanan family. Pamela Buchanan -- the daughter of Daisy, Jay Gatsby's ex-lover -- features prominently in the collection, and as she is Laurel's former neighbor (the Estabrook family lives on Long Island still), Laurel takes the opportunity to start digging for information. Is Bobbie Crocker really Robert Buchanan, the supposedly long-dead brother of Pamela? Will Bobbie's photos reveal the truth about the relationship between Daisy and Gatsby once and for all? To what ends will Pamela go to prevent Laurel from uncovering her family secrets? And how will solving the mystery help Laurel to silence her inner demons once and for all?

At this point, it may look as if this review reveals too many plot secrets -- from here, the reader should have a pretty good idea about how the book will end. However, the details presented in the above paragraphs appear in the first two or three chapters of the novel and, to a lesser extent, on the inside flap of the dust cover. So much for suspense; Bohjalian doesn't seem interested in keeping these juicy plot twists under wraps for very long, which makes for a bit of a let-down on the part of the reader as the book opens. Coming to learn that Daisy Buchanan and Jay Gatsby are real, flesh-and-blood characters within the novel, and the mysteries that surround the photos, are elements that would provide more delight if savored over a period of time. As it is, the reader knows the ending of the story before it really even begins.

The mystery, then, becomes predictable and pedantic. As a member of the powerful Buchanan family, Pamela uses every means necessary to prevent anyone besides Laurel from knowing the true story of her brother, and Laurel becomes increasingly obsessed as she pores over the photos to learn their hidden meaning. If this ho-hum plot was accompanied by deliciously well-crafted writing, we could almost forgive Bohjalian. Instead, we're bombarded with plain prose and thinly veiled homages to Fitzgerald and Bohjalian's favorite novel (he admits as much in the acknowledgements); we can't help but roll our eyes as Laurel encounters character after character with names like T. J. Leckbruge and Shem Wolfe. Instead of dancing gracefully around the symbols and images of a great masterpiece like The Great Gatsby, Bohjalian stomps straight through them.

These, however, are all minor complaints compared to the disastrous failure of a shock-and-awe ending Bohjalian uses. As if to atone for the overly-simplistic plot, he suddenly produces a whopper of a conclusion that comes out of nowhere. In some stories, having such an ending is an "ah-ha!" moment for the reader and sends one scrambling back through the text to sigh with frustration at all of the missed clues, the hidden signals, the tiny hints of what was to come. The Double Bind is not, however, one of these novels. Going back through the text simply reveals the inconsistencies that prevent the ending from being satisfying in any way. The reader is left wondering what, if anything, Bohjalian was Trying to Say (in that universal message sort of way) with such a strange send-off for his characters. The story doesn't leave us with the sense that it was all carefully crafted from the opening page; rather, the ending suggests that, after having the plot blow up in his face, Bohjalian created a shocking conclusion to cover up for his mistakes.

The one part of the book that remains enjoyable throughout is the collection of photographs we glimpse between the chapters; these photos were the work of an actual homeless artist and provide a glimpse into the life of a real man who, even after years of photographing the greats of his generation, couldn't manage to overcome his mental illness and lead a "normal" lifestyle. They are sad but beautiful, and a true find -- Bohjalian admits that they were the real impetus for the novel.

The premise of The Double Bind promises to be what so many current bestsellers are: a creative retelling of a beloved novel woven into a historical thriller. Instead, Bohjalian delivers a trite and heavy-handed story that leaves the reader disgusted and unfulfilled. For a better experience in the same genre, try The Dante Club or Special Topics in Calamity Physics, two works with writers at the helm that handle the task at hand with grace and wit.

Final Verdict: *

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