Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes, and Assia Weevil get reimagined by the author of Ice Age (stories: 2000), who also stirs a fictional Robert Anderson and several New York catastrophes into an overstuffed first novel.
The author begins intriguingly, with his alter ego on the roof of Columbia University’s Dodge Hall observing an unidentified tumult whose meaning will become clear only at the close. Seguing into his obsession with Plath, “for many years a spokesperson for the alienated, the lovelorn, the vengeful, the suicidal,” narrator Robert Anderson claims that Plath’s poems and Hughes’s “forged my identity . . . and, incidentally, they ruined my life.” It’s a good hook, and subsequent chapters exploring the couple’s psyches the day of Plath’s 1963 suicide lead readers to wonder where all this is going. Unfortunately, though, the narrator’s adventures from the 1960s through 2001 have no convincing connection with the Plath-Hughes-Weevil triangle beyond a general atmosphere of doom. The author, born in 1964, makes his namesake 18 years older: Robert Anderson describes the ’68 Columbia riots, the ’77 blackout, Times Square at its sleazy late-’70s ebb, and the AIDS epidemic all in vivid prose, but the excitement of the language can’t disguise the generic quality of the experiences. Weevil is the most interesting character here, shakily sustaining the affair with Hughes while realizing that his wife has chained him to her forever with her death. But this is familiar territory, and so are the narrator’s romances with an idiosyncratic photographer and a junkie prostitute. The spiraling time frame is clear enough but leads nowhere thematically. A contrived climax brings Robert to the World Trade Center on 9/11/01, then mingles that apocalypse with narratives of Hughes’s 1969 trip to New York (when the author has him encounter Robert) and Assia’s suicide the same year—topped off by placing Robert’s long-lost love aboard one of the hijacked planes. It’s way, way too much.
Ambitions this outsized need more coherent themes and ideas.