Monday, 30th October 2017

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  • Published 29.09.06

By Julia Glass,
Hutchinson, £11.50

Julia Glass’s second novel is strikingly similar to her first, Three Junes. Both are set in the West Village of New York (“a city of freely eccentric people”) and tell remarkably similar stories about parenthood, sexuality and human relationships. Her prose is rich, as before, the wisecracks most entertaining, and her preference for the three-part form, alive. Even the protagonist, Fenno McLeod, of her last novel, the adorable, gay bookseller with a parrot (“the bird prince”) returns, albeit peripherally. Only, the characters in this one are more fragile, their perceptions of history — private and political — complicated by 9/11, with which the novel ends.

The Whole World Over begins with the disintegrating marriage of Greenie Duquette, proprietor of the thriving Greenwich Village bakery, and Alan, her psychiatrist husband, who, at thirty-eight and after nearly ten years of marriage, has reached “the Peggy Lee stage in life: Is There All There Is?” Alan, “a moper and an emotional tortoise,” is a man “chronically resentful of direction”, totally different from his gregarious wife, who is robust and blessed with an irrepressible capacity for happiness. Wedged between this unhappy pair is Walter, a gay restaurateur running “a retro-American tavern that served high-cholesterol, high-on-the-chain meals with patriarchal hubris”, abjectly thwarted in his love for Gordie, an accountant.

As life with Alan becomes unbearably difficult, Greenie moves to New Mexico as the republican governor’s chef, with her four-year-old son. She has an affair with a former sweetheart, Charlie, which provisionally ends her marriage, while Alan discovers an illegitimate son he had unwittingly had with Marion, his high school crush.

Fidelity and parenthood are abiding concerns for the gay men as well. For Walter, with his friends dying of AIDS, finding love amidst the threat of mortality (“that accidental piano fall”) has become crucial. Gordie and his partner of thirteen years, Stephen, at their “baby crossroads”, are in therapy with Alan. When Walter and Gordie become lovers, very briefly, each escapes from what he fears most — Walter from his fear of growing old and dying all alone, and Gordie from Stephen’s oppressive demands for a child. Only the serenely wise Fenno McLeod, with his parrot, his solitary life around the bookshop, his growing friendship with Saga, a young girl caught in a loop of forgetfulness ever since her severe head injury, seems to embody a truly queered, genuinely alternative consciousness untainted by any conjugal mess.

Saga, named suggestively, is, in more ways than one, the informing genius of the novel. Constantly struggling to remember her past, to identify traces of it in her present, her mind is a perpetual stream of free associations, interconnecting objects, people, places, and feelings obsessively. The great rift in her life is the erasure of her past following her accident. Like every character in this novel haunted by parents and grandparents (living or dead) — by spirits from a lost world order — she too strives to remember the assurances of the past, the protective domesticity despite financial and personal hardships. The middle section of the novel — called “The Realm of You,” after an Emily Dickinson lyric — harks back to that nostalgic past, the setting changing appropriately from the harsh urbanity of NYC to the tender rusticity of New Mexico. The geographical, demographic and cultural differences between the volatile North and the timeless South are critical to understanding this changing history of attitudes. By the end of the novel, Walter’s restaurant, mockingly called “Heart Attack Central” by customers, has started serving a neurotic, calorie-conscious clientele.

The most important ‘character’ of the novel is 9/11. It returns Greenie to her family, ending her life with Charlie in New Mexico. Walter bursts into Fenno’s shop, hysterical that his nephew might be in one of the highjacked planes. They fall in love conveniently; Gordie remains susceptible to his weakness for burly men; the good are brought together, the erring made repentant — the stuff of which Hollywood romances are made. Despite the influence of Virginia Woolf on her luminous prose (especially, To the Lighthouse, another three-part novel), Glass’s novel ends in a feel-good, comfortable numbness.