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Ward Just, Forgetfulness

I just finished reading Ward Just’s latest novel, Forgetfulness, and enjoyed it a great deal. The title refers to how one deals with grief; while forgetting one's loss completely occurs only in rare instances, we all forget to some degree, in the sense of putting the past far behind us and moving on with our lives. The protagonist, Thomas Railles, is unable to completely forget or comprehend his wife’s senseless murder, so instead he weighs other options in his attempts to cope: whether to abandon the house and small-town life in the Pyrenees that they once shared, whether to give up his art, whether to exact revenge on his wife's suspected murderers. He is given a prime opportunity to do the latter, and is even encouraged to do so by his oldest friend, a career CIA agent for whom eye-for-an-eye is an unquestioned tenet of life. Railles, however, is torn between the temporary visceral thrill of revenge and its ultimate futility:

Vengeance might be solace for the seeker and perhaps rough justice for the sought but the object of it would remain -- he supposed the word was unconsoled. Would you be consoled, chérie, to see them dead? To watch them die, hear their cries, perhaps spit on their corpses? Would your soul rest easier? Perhaps it would.

I greatly admire Just’s restraint, both in the way he has Railles respond to the temptation he faces in the interrogation room, but even more so in the perspective which the author chooses to address terrorism, one of the most important issues of our era. Like most of us, 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror and the Iraq War (two battles which I, in sharp contrast to the Bush Administration, personally consider to be completely distinct entities -- and I suspect Just agrees with me) affected the author deeply, and this book is his way of tackling the issue. One big problem I have with the recent terrorism fiction efforts of John Updike (the novel Terrorist) and Martin Amis (the short story "The Last Days of Muhammad Atta") is the presumptive arrogance of two middle-aged, upper-crust white males attempting to write in the voices of disaffected, ostracized Muslims. Of course it’s important for writers to seek out perspectives different from their own, but in the case of Updike and Amis I instead get the feeling that their writings are nothing more than an author/ventriloquist speaking in the guise of a Muslim extremist. By contrast, Just shows considerable discretion by simply illustrating how terrorism affected one individual, in this case a middle-aged white male -- a protagonist not unlike that of Just himself. With Thomas Railles, Just is able to express thoughts and emotions which are rational, logical and pitch-perfect, in sharp contrast to the presumptions of Updike and Amis. Railles' responses to terrorism, his wife’s death and the question of revenge are all faithful to reality, with Just's choice of protagonist bringing considerable legitimacy to the novel's themes.

The language is typically beautiful, dense with feeling and import yet still a smooth read. The book moves like a thriller up to the point that the suspects are apprehended, maintaining a pleasant level of tension right up to the climax (or anti-climax) of the interrogation scene. But the anti-climax of that scene is by no means unfulfilling, as the narrative continues on for another seventy pages, showing quite poignantly how Thomas pieces his life back together as well as he can. The ending is not necessarily a happy one, but still hopeful.

All in all, Forgetfulness is a quietly powerful and thoughtful book, one which I highly recommend.

February 10, 2007 in Books | Permalink