So I finished Roxana Robinson's novel Cost, which I picked up last week. It started slowly, and I took a break from it to read Aoibheann Sweeney's pretty good first novel, Among Other Things I've Taken Up Smoking, (which I might post about later).
I mentioned in my last post that Robinson said she wrote the book -- which is about a family dealing with a son's heroin addiction -- without an outline, and without even an idea about what was going to happen. This had (at least) two apparent effects on the resulting narrative: one is that some of the scenes are pretty long and wandery. But the other is that the reader is entirely in the moment with the character. I realized that if the writer doesn't know what's going to happen, the reader doesn't either -- exactly like the character.
In one incredibly gripping scene, one of the main characters escapes from the hospital. "Where the hell does he think he's going?" I thought. Writing it, Robinson didn't know either, and I realized that if she had outlined it, the end of the scene would have been a total set up. Robinson would have, consciously or unconsciously, planted clues: a phone number stuffed into a pocket, an earlier conversation that could be recalled to provide an easy resolution. The reader would almost know how it was all going to turn out, because if the writer knows, she just can't help foreshadowing it. That's how we do it -- we can't even help it! It makes things so nice and tidy to set up a plot like that and let it roll inevitably out. It feels good, on some level, but it's not like life (not that novels have to be like life, but that's another post).
Nothing in Cost is a set-up, and as a result the novel is brilliantly, excruciatingly, realistic. It has a vivid, life-like, tumbling-into-the-void quality. And this quality makes up for a lot of things about the novel that would have otherwise put me off: the comfy, conventional characters, and the fact that most of them are awfully selfish and mean to each other. I don't mind reading about unlikable characters, but these people seemed unrealistically harsh. In fact, it made me wonder if my view of human nature -- that it's the rare person who can stay cold and self-involved in the face of another's suffering -- is actually wrong. Maybe many people are like this!
The positives of Cost far outweigh these negatives. It is, above all, a terrifying portrait of heroin addiction. But it's also a careful and sensitive analysis of how families evolve over time -- what happens to memories and feelings when relationships change, when parents divorce, children grow up and move out, when grandparents get very old. Yeah, something of a downer. But a great read. Robinson is so good at following the thoughts and revelations of each character -- all the details feel right, all the emotions too.