Dec 4 2013

In Pinelight by Thomas Rayfiel

Brian Gittis

web exclusive


What is it about writing with no chapters and no paragraph breaks that is so intimidating? Why do we miss those gaps of white space on a page when they aren't there: those little tabs at the beginning of a paragraph, the textless paper at the end of a chapter? No matter how big a Faulkner or Thomas Bernhard fan you are, it's somehow never a welcoming sight to open a new book to find (gulp) an unbroken wall of text waiting for you.

The novelist Thomas Rayfiel has been working just below the radar on some strange and wonderful projects over the years. He has an uncanny talent for convincingly inhabiting the voices of those who are nothing like him: a fifteen-year-old member of a Christian cult (Colony Girl), for instance, or a dying Victorian earl (Time Among the Dead). A master of craft, he has been an imaginative writer, a mischievous writer, and at times a very weird one—but never an experimental writer. His form has always been relatively straightforward. His new novel, In Pinelight, however, is something different.

"Mean as ever that's what he used to say about her but who are you?" the book begins. The novel's first page is a wall of speech from an elderly man in a nursing home. Musings, memories, questions, and unfinished thoughts stand together in a block of text unrefined by paragraph breaks, commas, or even reliable periods where it feels like periods ought to be. On the next page, after a line break, there is another wall that continues until the next line break on page six. After a few more pages of this, it's hard to resist the urge to peek through the rest of the book, which only confirms what we are in for: a full-length novel, written in the second person, with very little punctuation and no paragraphs.

In Pinelight's elderly narrator, William, sits in a nursing home, reminiscing about his life as a horse-cart deliveryman in small-town New York. The novel is made up entirely of Bill's discursive storytelling, but his stories are one half of a conversation. Another character, "you," sits in the nursing home with him and exists for the reader in a kind of negative space. We only see and hear "you" through Bill's responses to him ("yes a white shirt what funny questions you ask"). Over the course of the novel, who Bill is, and, more mysteriously, who "you" are, come slowly into focus. But ultimately, it's a photograph that never fully develops, leaving a haze around the edges—or maybe, given Bill's age, the better metaphor may be a very old photograph that has begun its regression towards a blank page.

Strange, arresting images poke through the fog of Bill's recollections: He speaks of an abandoned small town, languishing Atlantis-like beneath a reservoir; a mysterious, charismatic entrepreneur in control of vulnerable country community; the disemboweled corpse of a young man lying on a quiet country backroad; an alternative-medicine clinic around which swirl rumors of cannibalism. One night while Bill is making a delivery to the clinic, a truck honks, spooking Bill's horse and spilling his cargo. Only then does he realize that he's been asked to deliver a cooler full of human eyes ("you try to make them into pairs your head does when you see a bunch I mean two here two there but the way they were gazing every which way and all different colors and sizes"). These oddities lure us onward into the murk but then diffuse into ramblings about pine forests or the sticky buns his daughter brings him at the nursing home. If we want to know what the stranger images are about, we need to be patient.

This all takes some getting used to. In Pinelight is not a subway read. And for the first few sittings—or days—you have to teach yourself how to read it. It's a risky way to write a book, and it wouldn't work at all if Rayfiel's style were a hairsbreadth off the mark, or if Bill didn't turn out to be such a nuanced, fully realized, and memorable character. But this is a masterfully written book. After a while its strange rhythms and bizarre images get into your brain. There's a moment when Bill's voice and Rayfiel's rendering of Bill's voice seem to almost merge, at which point you no longer have to work to decipher Rayfiel's depictions of what Bill is saying-you simply hear Bill speak.

Bill introduces a dizzying array of characters and plot fragments early on that coalesce into two major narratives. One is the story of Bill's community, a network of small towns in upstate New York. We see its transformation over the course of his lifetime from a small, quaint slice of Sherwood Anderson Americana to a wealthy vacation community. The other story is that of Bill's life: the death of his mother when he was a teenager; his job driving the horse-drawn delivery cart and his disdain for cars; his deep friendship with his favorite horse, Allure; his courtship of and marriage to a quirky, prudish, religious woman named Alice; the disappearance of his older sister Rebecca under mysterious circumstances. The young Bill is gentle and obedient with a tendency to stare off into space with a weird look on his face. He's aware of his reputation for being something of a village idiot, but it's unclear whether he really is slow or whether that's just what his community makes of a shy, eccentric man who lacks formal education. Slow or not, one of the tragic failings in his life seems to have been a difficulty connecting with others: "There's a gap that's all. Between people," he explains to us, to his interlocutor. "You shout across it . . . but there's still the gap. Then sometimes unexpectedly it's gone you don't even know what happened why it went away or when it's coming back."

The character bridging the story's two narratives—Bill's and the town's—is Claude Lebrun, the wily, eccentric Canadian-born entrepreneur behind the town's transformation. He's widely viewed with suspicion by the locals, but with his single-mindedness and mysteriously deep pockets, Lebrun transforms Bill's corner of upstate New York, buying property, building vacation homes (first by himself, then with crews), and taking the town wives and daughters to bed along the way for good measure. Along his professional ascent, Lebrun employs Bill in a number of odd jobs, and by the time of Lebrun's death, Bill considers Lebrun to be the best friend he has. It's hard to not be a little suspicious of this friendship, to wonder what the sophisticated Lebrun wants with obedient and simple Bill. But regardless, there is an intimacy between them—Bill sees a vulnerable side of Lebrun that's invisible to nearly everyone else.

For all its experimental trappings, the pleasures of In Pinelight are surprisingly old-fashioned. Rayfiel's richly imagined small towns become a self-contained universe for the reader—we internalize their traditions and lore, the names of their local businesses and the nuance of what crowd each particular drinking establishment attracts. They host the comedies and tragedies of small-town America—the crimes, extramarital affairs, rumors, weddings, deaths, and cannibalistic alt-medicine clinics of any town worth its salt. To borrow a phrase from country-rocker Gram Parsons, there is a kind of "cosmic American music" at work here. Through Bill's fragmented, kaleidoscopic storytelling, the familiar characters and pleasures and tragedies of an Our Town or a Winesburg, Ohio have been taken apart and put back together. The surface effect is slightly psychedelic, but the emotional honesty of the underlying stories is preserved. Despite its chilly avant-garde fašade—the walls of text, the unseen interlocutor, the weird punctuation—In Pinelight is a warm, earnest, moving, and at times feverishly beautiful book.

So why the strange style? The story of what happens to Bill and Alice and Lebrun has all the drama and beauty of a fine straightforward novel. But this is also a book about memory—Rayfiel is not just interested in a life's story, but also in how memory renders that story. This brings us back to the wall. One thing that white space on a page allows us to do is pause and give shape to the wash of information we encounter. White spaces also help us map where a given event falls in a book's larger structure. They help us turn data into a story. When all we have is a wall of text, uncovering and keeping track of a book's larger shape becomes more difficult-as we flip forward and backward, everything looks the same.

When deep into In Pinelight, we learn that Bill suffered a stroke a few years ago, the quirky punctuation and bizarre structure (or lack of structure) seem darker. Bill's rambling is a little less amusing, a little less curious. It also helps to explain why "you" are there with Bill. The information of Bill's life is still all there in his head. Old age and a stroke have taken away its structure and his ability to retrieve thoughts at will-to pull them off the shelf when he wants them, put them back when he's done, and remember where they are with respect to the rest of the closet. With the presence of another person (who admittedly has to do a little work), these data are again assembled into the shape of a life. In that sense there is something humane and extraordinarily intimate about the interlocutor's-and the reader's-participation in the story. By the end, reading it feels like an act of compassion.

The connection we make with Bill is particularly intimate given that we had to pass through a wall to get there. You begin reading this novel by laboriously deciphering its strangely rendered sentences—trying to figure out who is speaking and what's going on—but you end it a rapt listener. In some ways, it feels like the sort of uncomplicated intimacy with others Bill sought his whole life. We experience that moment when his "gap" drops away. In Pinelight is one of this year's hidden gems. That wall Rayfiel has built will undoubtedly keep a few casual readers from reaching this novel's harrowing, heartbreaking penultimate scene, one of the most beautiful and devastating things I've read in recent years. But I suppose most people wouldn't sit down with an old man in a nursing home either and listen to what he has to say. Those who sit down with this one will be richly rewarded.

Brian Gittis's writing has appeared in The Paris Review Daily.

emakins

December 9, 2013
1:02 am

I reviewed this book for a newspaper and thus was limited to 500 or fewer words, and I just want to say that this review is the one I wish I'd written, or would've written if I had the space—it's brilliant, gets precisely what's so good about this book while clearly conveying what might make it off-putting to certain readers, even as it reveals why those readers are wrong to be put off.

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