In revisiting the world of Lewis’ torrid affairs gone cold, one thing is certain: the prose is as masterful as it was when I left it. Lewis’ command of the music of a sentence never diminished with time. But knowing that magic, the insidiousness of the message is thrown into stark relief. At its core, Ondine is a book about a man and the ways he navigates the tempestuous affections of the women who love him: the volatile-but-brilliant Caroline, the steadfast-but-mediocre Ellen, and the put-upon Mary, each with her own unique gifts that serve to mirror the weight they carry in Nick’s life and his heart. By definition, Nick is a man who loves, and in his love remakes the world in his own image, both through the lens of the camera and through his exertions of power on the women in his life in the the giving or withholding of that love. Nick doesn’t love well. He never has. Readers fell in love with Caroline, No due in large part to Nick’s grappling with his own failures, reconciliations, and rekindling of what he believes is love.
What he never is, however, is culpable for his own actions, and in this, Lewis’ greatest sleight of hand is revealed. Caroline, No would have you believe that Nick is a passenger on a journey of self-discovery, helmed by the titular young woman who teaches him the magic in the thrumming of his bones. Ondine, similarly, would have you believe that Nick is no more in control of the aftermath Caroline, No’s events than he was their inception. The magic of these novels, then, is not just beautiful sentences, but the ways in which the sum of their parts might position women as both the salvation for the rudderless lover and the architect of that lover’s destruction. They are shades to react against a man’s realization of himself, and in doing so, the consequentiality of their existence becomes incidental in that man’s journey toward some higher plane of understanding.
This isn’t new. The concept of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl is a trope that’s existed in fiction since Beatrice in Dante’s Divine Comedy set out, in all her singular goodness, to lead him to spiritual fulfillment. The Literary Review’s 2018 edition of the Bad Sex award is a masterclass of the ways in which men write men who exhibit mastery over women and, in doing so, over themselves. In this way, entire careers are built on the backs of women whose worth starts and ends at the first ineffable mysteries of her sexuality and the things she awakens inside of lonely men.
It’s impossible for me to discuss the material reality of literary fiction’s commodification of women without admitting to the ways in which I’m complicit in doing exactly that. My first novel, The Long Road to Morning, was one of these stories—a story about a lonely boy and an unsolvable woman, written by a lonely boy who didn’t care enough to ask for a way in. Until recently, it was also the most commercially successful book I’d ever written. In the intervening years, I’ve had to square myself with the ways in which the art I made perpetuated a culture of tacitly sanctioned misogyny—in itself, a silencing and a violence—both within and outside of the insular literary world in which I live and write. I’ve learned—am still learning—about the times when it’s appropriate to use my artistic platform to speak out about things I see, and when it’s appropriate to use that platform to amplify the voices of others. What troubles me is the realization that as a man—as a successful, educated, white man with a platform—my speaking on issues of misogyny in publishing is more likely to be granted an audience than if it came from one of my female colleagues. That the desire to clutch at the memories and legacies of men who make men feel less lonely, less inadequate, less to blame for their mediocrities and failures, can so far outstrip the flesh and bones of the women who are flattened into voiceless, pretty sculptures in their wake.
There is beauty in a well-crafted sentence. There’s magic in a voice returning from beyond the grave. But art, like everything else, cannot exist separate from the cultural moment in which it’s produced. Issues of timing, of agency, of the material consequences of words and the narratives they create, can’t be divorced from the music of those sentences. Instead, I’d argue that the handwringing concerns over what will become of lonely men who love unknowable women might be better placed in the wonder and anticipation of the stories those women may tell, of what worlds they may create when they are allowed, with full-throated support, to step from the shade and into the light.
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Brannon Dawson's Until the Water Takes Us is the winner of the 2018 National Book Award for fiction. He is the author of is the author of the novels The Long Road to Morning, Bolero, and Disastermath. He was previously a Wallace Stegner fellow, a fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, and a Cullmen Center Fellow at the New York Public Library. He was the recipient of a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, and was named as one of the National Book Foundation's 5 Under 35 in 2006. He lives and teaches in New York City.