When Harry Tichborne, at the outset of Laird Hunt's elegant novel Ray of the Star, crosses the Atlantic for an extended stay in an unnamed city, his journey seems an appropriate migration. In his pairing of somber themes and fanciful ambience, Hunt shares little with his American contemporaries and displays a Continental sensibility that recalls the fabulism of Cees Nooteboom (The Following Story) and the antic charms of Éric Chevillard (On the Ceiling). Written as a series of single-sentence chapters, Hunt's wave-upon-wave piling of clauses also brings to mind the style of José Saramago. Like these writers, Hunt works in a mode where the storyteller is always close at hand and characterization is less a matter of psychological penetration than an imaginative conceit. Such writing aspires to be cerebral entertainment that bears its intelligence lightly, but its fabricated world risks coming across as contrived or merely precious.
With a supporting cast whose names sound borrowed from a forgotten opera (Ireneo, Alfonso, Doña Eulalia) and whimsical devices such as a pair of running shoes that talk, Ray of the Star unfolds within an aura of rather literary enchantment. But the novel is seldom diminished by the quirkiness of its artifice. Writing with self-conscious fastidiousness, Hunt shows a liking for the ornate or archaic phrase ("deucedly," "executed his ablutions"), idiosyncratic punctuation, and descriptions studded with caveats and hesitations: "he had been looking for her and had found her, and hadn't his method been more or less to stagger around the city until their paths crossed again? and hadn't that been what had happened? it had, but, still, in what sense had he, actually, been looking for her?" Such fussiness, surprisingly, creates a beguiling surface that counterpoints terrors lurking beneath. In his attempt to free himself from implacable grief, Harry embarks on what seems at first an eccentric errand of self-renewal—an "assault on life" or "some ontological equivalent of the Humpty Dumpty story"—but his tale becomes increasingly nightmarish.
Years before his transatlantic journey, Harry endured a crushing loss—the details of which Hunt reveals only in the closing pages. We are given blurred flashbacks to the episode—a snow-blanketed countryside, an icy lake, a motel room far from Harry's home—and glimpses of his despair after the incident, conveyed mostly through others' counsel that he conform to emotional etiquette and, as they say, move on. His sudden expatriation to a "great city where he had once spent a few happy months" promises a belated end to his stubborn mourning, and after some depressive pangs of adjustment, he does feel lightened by "inexplicable frivolity." Suiting up as Don Quixote, Harry begins performing as one of those "living statues" who amuse tourists, as a way of getting closer to his beautiful fellow entertainer, Solange, who dazzles passersby as a melancholy silver angel. Hunt doesn't ask that we take these kitschy street fixtures seriously as artists; unconcerned with drawing crowds or raising money, they present themselves to the reader as patent symbols, emblems of life deadened into mute stillness. In the wake of her lover's murder by a jealous rival, Solange, too, is mourning, and for Harry she represents "a silver suffix to all that had gone wrong in his life and a silver prefix to all that might . . . still go right."
Harry's hopes, joined by Solange's unlikely warming to his affections, lead us to anticipate a Hollywood-style arc where romantic love sets the past's troubles to rest. Adding to this expectation is the halcyon setting: a metropolis of "shining breeze-blessed surfaces" unsullied by grit, petty crime, or other usual urban inconveniences. But Hunt plants the signposts of the redemptive love story only to thwart such a tale from playing out. The lovers' union is based not on Eros—Hunt all but skips over the affair's consummation, and Harry seems incapable of a sexual thought—but rather a less fiery fellowship of grief. And their relationship is ultimately of marginal importance to the war for Harry's soul being fought by several otherwordly figures. Among the key players in Hunt's metaphysical fairy tale are Doña Eulalia, an elderly woman who orders her assistant, Ireneo, to light candles for the dead and presides over an obscure "ceremony of the lamps," and the three sinister old men known only as the connoisseurs, who speak like wiseass noir goons and delight in boundless cruelty. As messengers representing the brutal, unvarnished fact of death (as opposed to Doña Eulalia's ritual observance of mourning rites), the connoisseurs pull Harry into a harrowing confrontation with the traumatic event, which seems to have shed none of its rawness.
Hunt's slender book is deceptively modest. Its chapter-spanning sentences pirouette and backflip but never slip away from their creator, who has adopted a form elastic enough to accommodate associative leaps and acrobatic shifts in time and from one character to another. Scenes of intricate pursuit are orchestrated with the attention and care of a spy thriller. And the shimmering city pulses with a Klee-like lyricism, until its weather changes and a windswept gothicism takes hold. Perhaps the curious pleasures offered by Hunt's inventive artistry are meant to compensate for the bleakness of its underlying vision. Harry is given the ideal milieu—and even a gorgeous love interest—to resolve and leave behind his grief, but his unsettling story puts forth the argument that there are some losses you never get over, some fates handed down with the finality of a curse. However much Hunt may have been influenced by European models, this refusal of therapeutic healing makes Ray of the Star a thoroughly un-American book.
James Gibbons is associate editor at the Library of America and a frequent contributor to Bookforum.