A writer throws himself into his work with dangerous consequences in this debut novel.
Xander wakes up to the sound of high heels in the apartment above him every day. When he finally meets the woman wearing them, Belle, he learns that the two of them have something devastating in common. Xander’s son committed suicide years before, and Belle’s son recently died in a car accident. As Belle copes with serious problems concerning her other son, Xander acts part supportive, part sleazy, engaging her in intense philosophical conversations about the need to find momentary pleasure in a cruel and absurd world. In some ways, he earnestly seeks to pass on his firsthand understanding of bereavement; but how convenient, really, that one of these proposed delights is to sleep with him. In his frustration and helplessness over their stalled affair, he turns to his latest novel. It’s as though he applies for asylum from the real world through his imagination, but instead of finding relief, the emotional landscape of his book becomes ever more complex and intertwined with his own. The protagonists, Rebecca and Tomas, fall desperately in love despite major hindrances: She is married and he is a priest. They wrestle with the meaning of devotion, romantic and religious, in a manner that clearly reflects their maker. But gradually, scenes in Xander’s life also begin to echo his creation until, Julio Cortázar–like, the two become virtually indistinguishable. Stoner (The Dream, 2014) smartly maintains tension in Xander’s character, making it difficult to determine if he’s caring or manipulative in his interactions with Belle. Similarly, the way Xander laments his own flaws often comes across as intriguingly disingenuous, amounting to the view that life is so much more difficult for someone as deep as he is. Perhaps as a consequence, the philosophical questions about time, love, and loss prove slightly too reductive and repetitive to be as stimulating as Stoner might hope. But there are still plenty of worthy intellectual bones to gnaw on here.
A take on the age-old fact-versus-fiction dilemma that’s by turns insightful and obvious.