Updated: May 9, 2012 8:05AM
‘The past is never dead,” goes the great line from Faulkner. “It’s not even past.” The truth of this — the ways the past works its dark magic on the present and future — is the subject of Chicago author Carol Anshaw’s rambling new novel, Carry the One (Simon & Schuster, $25). It’s the story of a group of young adults whose lives are marked and shaped by the night when, returning from a wedding stoned, drunk, sleepy or some combination thereof, they get in a car, which then hits and kills a young girl on a country road outside the Windy City.
The passengers on this joyless ride — which continues for the next 25 years — include Alice, a painter whose best work (most of which she will never put on display) is pictures of the dead girl at various ages; her brother Nick, a brilliant astronomer and hopeless drug addict; his girlfriend Olivia, the driver of the car that night, who goes to prison for her trouble; and Maude, Alice’s own sometime girlfriend when she can bear the thought of being a lesbian.
It’s reductive to say the novel is about guilt, though that’s a key strand of its emotional fabric. More accurately, it’s about the way a single tragic event can become a sort of black hole in one’s personal history, pulling everything around it into its maw. “That night sits inside me as if it were yesterday,” Nick tells the girl’s father years after the accident. “Time passing doesn’t touch it.” It’s also true that the patterns of the characters’ lives are in place, if not fully formed, before the accident. Alice and Maude are doomed to be each other’s lifelong obsession, tragedy or no; Nick, who’s high when we first meet him and who stays that way for nearly the entire book, is just plain doomed.
So is Carry the One, whose promising premise gradually sinks beneath the weight of the book’s structural flaws. The first and worst of these is the near-absence of a plot, which is a serious problem in a story that begins in 1983 and ends — or, rather, sputters out — in the present. We all know the dogma that literary fiction is primarily about the revelation of character, but must such revelations be utterly without suspense? There’s virtually no cause-and-effect relationship in the unfolding of events here: Something happens; something else happens, and so on. Never once did this reader wonder what might happen next.
Nearly as problematic is the book’s lack of a central character. Just as we begin to develop some emotional investment in Alice, whose artistic and romantic struggles make her the leading candidate for a compelling protagonist, the author cuts to Nick, who’s inevitably off on yet another bender — or to their relatively boring sister Carmen, or their troublesome parents, or to Olivia. In terms of narrative momentum, this is a particularly egregious form of self-sabotage. It would have been far wiser, it’s impossible not to think, for the author to have settled on one of these people — whose stories, after that fateful car ride, unspool largely independently of one another — as a focal point. There are successful ensemble dramas, of course, but Carry the One is not among them.
We’re left, in the end, with the feeling of having read not a novel but the interspersed abstracts of several novels, constantly interrupting each other. Fully developed with a minimum of distractions, the tale of Alice and Maude would have made for a richly erotic cautionary tale about the pernicious effects of internalized homophobia; by themselves, Nick and Olivia could be grimly engrossing in the manner of “Leaving Las Vegas.” Anshaw is obviously going for a slice-of-life effect here, but there are too many slices of too many lives, and instead of complementing each other, they tend to compete and cancel each other out. It’s a lesson every novelist should learn: When you snap a family portrait, don’t forget to focus the lens.
Kevin Nance is a Chicago freelance writer.