A Window Across the River
By Brian Morton
Harcourt, 304 pages, $25.
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Writers are often told not to write novels about writing. The temptation must be tremendous. After all, they know the territory and the tools, and to a novelist, few things are more gripping than the process of putting words on paper. But it is hard to get emotionally involved in the story of a working writer. When the words come, writers spend a lot of time alone, and when the words don’t come, it may strike few readers as tragic.
Thus, initially, it’s difficult to feel a stake in the professional life of Nora, the writer-heroine of “A Window Across the River,” the new novel by Brian Morton, who won the 1998 Koret Jewish Book Award for his last novel, “Starting Out in the Evening.” To make matters worse, we are supposed to be impressed by Nora’s professional credentials, told that she has been invited to a well-known writer’s colony and has published several short stories in a prestigious literary magazine. Both the colony and magazine are named, on the assumption that the reader will be convinced of Nora’s seriousness and anxious for her to write again, to, as she puts it, transform herself “‘[b]ack into a writer. From whatever it is I’ve become.’”
Nora makes this confession to her former lover, Isaac, himself a disappointed artist, a photographer who now works for a New Jersey newspaper and has produced no new work in years. Isaac is still besotted with Nora. When, after five years without contact, she calls him in the middle of the night and doesn’t say a word, he immediately knows it is her. “‘I recognized your silence,’” he says.
The intimacy between Isaac and Nora is fully believable and beautifully realized. From it springs the larger theme of the relationship between intimacy and creativity, and between creativity and betrayal, because Nora, as we soon learn, can only write about people she knows. When she writes, she becomes “a cannibal, feeding off the lives of acquaintances, friends and loved ones.” Furthermore, intimacy leads to insight, and her fiction reveals uncomfortable truths: “Her fiction was more perceptive than she was, and more ruthless.”
This talent and curse has ruined more than one relationship. A college friend shares a confidence, and not only does it end up in a published story, but the friend herself is savaged. Boyfriends come across drafts and withdraw. A colleague reads a story where Nora has imagined a bleak future for her and has invented regret over an old flame. Furious, she accuses Nora of reading her diary. By pure chance, Nora gave the fictional character the name of an actual person in her colleague’s life.
Such supernatural moments are the stuff of intimacy. Anyone who has ever had a close friendship, raised a child, nursed a parent or been in love can recognize them. At the same time, this intimacy is private and is built on trust. Nora the writer cannot help but break that trust over and over again: “It was as though she was a medium, with no control over the voices that spoke through her.”
Nora is clearly afraid of this side of herself. “In daily life, she was a kind person — at least she hoped she was. But in her stories, she wasn’t kind at all.” It is this fear that has kept her from writing. In fact, at the novel’s outset, Nora seems to have settled on keeping the world at arm’s length. The spare language and brief chapters imply a hard-won emotional distance. She will not get too close because she is afraid of who she will become. Thus, she settles for silence.
However, as in that pre-dawn phone call, Isaac is able to recognize Nora’s silence, and he won’t let her get away with it. He knows she is gifted, knows it in part because of his own limitations and disappointments. Isaac is a photographer, but as years pass with scant recognition, “[h]is will began to give out.” Isaac is a decent man who is beginning to realize the limitations of his own decency. Slowly, he finds himself eclipsed by photographers who are younger and flashier, but also, he admits, more talented. Isaac can recognize what he calls “the real thing.” He realizes that Nora’s demon, or, as Nora herself puts it, her “goblin,” is an essential part of her. Unlike Nora, Isaac is not afraid of getting close. If that means getting close to Nora’s goblin, he believes he is willing to pay the price.
Inevitably, that price is paid. As Nora falls in love with Isaac, her resistance unravels, and even the tight, spare language of the novel itself loosens and flows. Nora begins to write. She knows that what she is writing puts the relationship at risk, yet it is the relationship itself that pushes her on. The Isaac she creates in her story, she might insist, is not the Isaac she loves. As in all of her “poisoned pen letters,” the weaknesses are foremost. Still, both Nora and the reader realize that, as ever, she has hit on basic truths about Isaac’s character, revealed not only by her power as a writer, but also by how close they have become.
Such ruthlessness risks making a character difficult to love, and Morton compensates, perhaps too well, by making the non-writing Nora indisputably lovable. She is resourceful enough to perform the Heimlich maneuver on a dog. She has a cute laptop computer that she won’t turn off for fear that it won’t turn on again. She’s unpretentious enough to eat a cheeseburger and a milkshake, and every once in a while, she’ll put on a dress and reveal a pair of world-class legs. She spends most of her free time with her elderly Aunt Billie, a girlish cat-lover who has, thus far, been spared a transformation into a character in one of Nora’s stories.
However, ultimately, we know that Aunt Billie’s time will come. While Nora may not always be believable as a woman, she is always believable as a writer. Nora the woman is adorable. Nora the writer is not. It is a true achievement that by the time Nora is able to write again, we have accepted her bargain. She must write because it is an expression of knowledge and an expression of love. Her ruthless writing is, in fact, a form of loving. Her true partner will learn not only to recognize her silence, but also to recognize her voice.
Simone Zelitch is the author of “Louisa” (Putnam, 2000) and “Moses in Sinai” (Black Heron, 2001). She lives in Philadelphia.