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A Review of The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin

The World Without You: A Novel

The World Without You, by Joshua Henkin encouraged me to pick up E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, a book given to me a decade ago. Though I’ve read and loved many of Forster’s novels, I’d never read his meditation on the art and craft of the novel before, but there was something so exquisite about the structure of The World Without You, I wanted to discuss it in regard to a master’s idea on novel writing.

I sort of relish my position here as perhaps the most old-fashioned, curmudgeonly of Big Other’s contributors. The World Without You is a classically constructed book, with a rich narrative, plotted over the long weekend of the Fourth of July, a year after the Frankel family lost their only son, Leo, a journalist killed in Iraq, and the only brother to three sisters. Henkin uses these worldy issues (the Iraq war and an almost ironic Fourth of July celebration) as a backdrop for a detailed examination of a family and the intricacies of the complicated dynamics of any family. And by doing so, by not ignoring the world around the Frankel family, Henkin only adds more depth to the story of their lives.

Forster is often funny in his discussion of the novel, something I wasn’t prepared for, as I usually dread books about writing, since I often find earnest lectures on what writers should do immediately dated and boring. Though many might find him dated, Forster is not boring. He writes:

[T]he novel tells a story. This is the fundamental aspect without which it could not exist. That is the highest factor common to all novels, and I wish that is was not so, that it could be something different—melody, or perception of the truth, not this low atavistic form.

These are deceptive sentences: clearly Foster believes that novels contain melodic aspects as well as revealing truths, but he also truly believes in the idea that a novel must tell a story. Not everyone holds this belief, or expresses this belief as overtly as Forster, Henkin, and myself do. Henkin’s novel is rich in story, told from multiple points of view, beginning with the Frankel family get-together a year after Leo’s death, for a memorial service. His parents, Marilyn and David, are on the verge of separation, the grief of losing their son having destroyed their marriage. Leo’s three sisters, Clarissa, Lily and Noelle (the black sheep of the family, a born-again Orthodox Jew living in Israel), each very different from the other and hardly close, all come to stay at the family summer house, as does Leo’s widow, Thisbe, and only son, Calder, who is all but three.

Henkin adroitly navigates this tremendous amount of material, further exemplifying principles that Forster advances: (I would love to quote the entire book because it’s hilarious more than instructive, but I’m going to try to stay relevant) “[W]e all want to know what happens next. That is universal and that is why the backbone of a novel has to be story.” Henkin builds this “backbone” of wanting to know what happens next over the course of 325 pages through creating questions in the reader’s mind: Will Marilyn and David separate? Will Clarissa get pregnant and how will her marriage stand up to infertility problems? How much do both of these things have to do with Leo’s death? As Thisbe contemplates remarriage, what relationship will she have with the family of her dead husband, the father of her child? And will Noelle, my favorite character, survive her troubled marriage, something her religion basically insists she does?

To want to know what happens next, one has to care. And to make us care about a large family of fictional characters is a monumental task. Forster goes on to say:

Some of us want to know nothing else, but what happens next—there is nothing else in us but a primeval curiosity, and consequently our other literary judgments are ludicrous…it can only have one merit: that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely, it can have only one fault: that of making the audience not want to know what happens next.

Again, this is not the way one thinks when reading a great deal of experimental texts, although I find it relevant in some wildly experimental texts, like Keith Nathan Brown’s Embodied, a book I recently published. Yet, many people prefer to talk about “language,” or even worse, more academic aspects of literature, like which “school” a book falls into. Language is important to me and to any writer; in fact, it’s another area where Henkin excels; but language is only relevant in as much as it serves the narrative. Academic scholarship is important and I’m grateful for it, but that doesn’t mean I can participate in it. For me, it was one or the other. (I also gave up painting and hope to give up cigarettes.)

Henkin puts all these Frankels, with their grief and problems, into one house, and forces them to deal with each other. With them, is the ghost of Leo, destroying the backbones of the family, Marilyn and David. It’s a question of survival, not only over the long haul but also over the course of their long weekend together. I wanted to know. Henkin makes me want to know. Putting characters, or as Forster so lovingly puts it, “People,” in extremis is a wonderful way to write a novel. And I can think of nothing more extreme than putting a large family together under one roof. To a less mature eye, this may seem banal. Birth, puberty, sex, death, family gatherings—because of their universality they seem banal, but they are truthfully the most extreme of experiences. In one of the novel’s stark scenes, we find Lily, a secure, sort of controlling lawyer: “It’s almost two in the morning and she’s in the dark, and the only thing she can see is the light of her cell phone. She’s thirty eight years old, and she’s lying naked in her childhood bed.” This is pure description and yet so much more is being told. I can think of nothing worse than being middle-aged and being in my childhood bed. The range of emotions underlying this description (shame, regression, panic even) remains implicit, but because of Henkin’s attentiveness, the scene is funny and ultimately painful.

The scene is punctured by a bit of dialogue, where Lily talks to her partner:

“Malcolm,” she says, “let’s move far away. I want to start someplace new.”

“Where in the world would we move?’

“Auckland?” she says. “The moon?”

There is this horrible thing when someone dies: life goes on. Nothing is worse than that. That the world doesn’t stop. Henkin’s novel explores the pain of grief, the desire to escape life and pain, beautifully rendering it within a rich narrative, displaying his love for his “people.” And it is this love that is the salve. That said, I can’t help but end with a quote from Etgar Keret:

I think that any authentic feeling one has of life should be a feeling of defeat. It’s a losing game. You’re going to die. Civilization is going to end. Our society is in decline, and we should feel OK about it because Roman society was in decline and before it the Assyrian one was, and they disappeared off this earth and we will disappear too…

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