by Antonya Nelson (Bloomsbury USA)
There are novels that feel —interminably, at times — like novelists wrote them, and there are novels that — because of their economy of language, lyricism, and vivid imagery — feel more like short stories at heart. And sometimes those ones are better.
In this slender novel, Antonya Nelson’s fourth (she’s published six collections of short fiction), the writer looks at family and relationships, memory and loss — ordinary, everyday concerns. But there’s a serial killer on the loose, and his reality creates a constant background hum, a kind of white noise behind her characters’ lives. The BTK Killer of Wichita, Kansas (bind, torture, kill was his m.o.) who was at large in the ’70s has returned after a quiet thirty years, baiting the press with clues to new killings.
For a story with such grisly underpinnings this one is surprisingly free of any feeling malice or even eeriness. That seems to not be what Nelson was going for at all, which is an interesting choice. It’s as if she’s reminding us: This is the stuff of life, too. Sometimes awful things happen, yes, but when they don’t happen to us they can end up seeming like not much more than the scenery of our own lives — they create meaning and cause change, for sure, but probably in some way we’ll never really know.
So instead of telling us much about this high-profile violence Nelson has crafted a story within that story, a personal one, its tragedies exploding on a much smaller scale. First we meet Misty, the recovered alcoholic whose daughter has just moved east for boarding school and left her restlessly alone; Misty’s accidental death opens the novel. When Cattie is told that her one parent, her only family, has died, she doesn’t want to attend the school anymore but she can’t go home to Houston yet, either, so she hides out in the cluttered home of her one school friend’s stepsister. She has the spare bedroom and Randall, a spooked, post-traumatic soldier, has the attic.
We readers go back and forth between this odd little household to the brisker lives of Catherine, Misty’s best friend from high school, and Catherine’s much older, successful husband in Wichita. She doesn’t know that Misty ever had a baby, let alone that she named the girl after her, but she’s about to find out.
Meanwhile, the murderer is back in the news, leaving notes and possessions he claims belonged to women he killed. Catherine remembers how, weirdly, she and her friend weren’t very scared of him when they were in high school and he killed a family in Misty’s hardscrabble neighborhood. No one seems especially upset about the guy now, either, just fascinated by the spectacle as it unfolds on TV.
This novel — which is good, easy company from the first word — feels like a short story in all the best ways: Its language is economical and poetic, its metaphor apt. (Nelson shows us a tombstone that has the “name and birth date engraved with an empty space beside it, waiting like a blank on a quiz to be filled in.”) It also sort of feels like a good country western song, warm and sad, easy-going, clever. Bound, like much of Nelson’s other work, is a story that is not merely set in but is of the American West and Midwest. Even Cattie’s brief time in New England is seen through the eyes of someone used to looking at the wide open spaces of her Texas home.
Cattie’s mother, who we get to know through the girl’s memories, was tough, unpretty and mostly unlucky; her father was absent, her other relatives in and out of jail. In an effort to pull herself out of her difficult background Misty became a real estate agent and kept a house that was “appointed as if adhering to the designs of dollhouses: living room with a fireplace, dining room with a long empty table and candlesticks…” What a perfect way to describe the way a person might make a safe life for herself without having been given any real idea how to do that.
Nelson also gives her characters some weird backstories, little details that feel all the more real because they’re so unlikely. Like: When Catherine and Misty were up-to-no-good teenagers they dated a couple of older guys they met by overhearing their conversation while they talked on the phone. The wires had crossed in such a way that they could hear the guys’ faint voices “haunting their call like a poltergeist.” It’s a skilled writer who can tell a story like that and know that it will feel like something that could really happen and not like something she dreamed up.
Then, of course, there is the book’s beautiful language, beginning with the poetry of the title. This isn’t a crime novel, and Nelson never introduces us to the killer’s victims or their families. The kind of bound she’s interested in has more to do with relationships, including old ones, and the way they can reach out for you from the darkness of the past even after you’ve stopped thinking about them. But the people of this novel are bound to that larger tragedy too, of course, tied to the place where the violence occurred. Hearing on the radio about the murderer’s return, Misty felt “a prickling pride in being from the city where he’d killed people, the curious emotion of by-proxy notoriety.” In her quietly smart way, Nelson shows us that even a disturbing relationship like this one is just one example of the way we’re all bound to each other — and who can say where those connections will lead?