Monday, February 13, 2012


I've been reading a lot of books lately with caveman titles, by which I mean titles that hit you over the head with their cudgel of metaphor before dragging you back to their cave of obviousness screaming, LOOK!  Here are the THEMES!  I've pointed them out to you in the TITLE!

And I'm not just talking "Hot for the Duke," here.  Romance novels always come neatly labeled, like bottles of rat poison, and this is OK, because you know what you're after, with a romance novel, and it's not surprise.  The Happy Ending, the dead rat: Satisfaction Guaranteed.

No, I'm talking books with titles like "Freedom" and "The Corrections."  Both of these titles come courtesy of Jonathan Franzen, whose writing is addictive, self-conscious, and self-consciously addictive, and whose titles, like eager beagles, point at the author's preoccupations.

I've never been much of a fan of being hit over the head, so it was with trepidation that I approached "Bound," Antonya Nelson's snapshot of a tangle of ordinary lives lived around the time of the mid-2000s resurfacing of the Witichia serial killer BTK (Bind-Torture-Kill).

Nelson's principal character is Catherine, a mild-tempered trophy wife who inherits, from a long-dead friendship,  a sullen fifteen-year-old-girl.  Catherine is the third wife of Oliver, a self-made, self-made-over philanderer.  Cattie, the daughter of Catherine's old and wily friend Misty, most often chooses not to speak; in contrast, Catherine's mother Grace, a former English professor, can't speak at all due to a stroke.

These characters are "bound" to one another even as they alternately attend to and are repulsed by, the "binding" of BTK.  It's all mind-numbingly obvious-

Except it's not.  There's very little obviousness about the way Nelson has opened up each of her characters, exposed their insides with the patient, plodding dedication of a pathologist.  The story passes from character to character, not moving linearly but nevertheless gaining speed, direction, traction.  Despite the inclusion of a serial killer, it's not a lurid novel: those hoping for literal bindings will be disappointed.  Rather, it's a short-story-writer's novel  -which is what Nelson is, when you break down her bio-  a series of shimmering miniatures, like variations on a theme.

BTE: Better Than Expected.

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