To Possess the Elusive
At the beginning of William Boyd’s story “The Woman on the Beach with a Dog,” Garrett Rising, businessman on his way home to New York, impulsively turns east on the highway and drives to Cape Cod. Walking on the beach, he hears a dog bark, and then “another shout, more distant, and Garrett looked down the curving beach to see a figure waving its arms and shouting something. He caught only the words ‘Mister, please—’ before the wind carried the rest away.”
The image of a remote figure, who approaches but whose words remain incomprehensible, embodies the persistent sense of isolation that haunts Fascination, Boyd’s new collection of short stories. Boyd’s work is, straightforwardly, a meditation on fascination, primarily the obsessive nature of the relationship between artist and subject. Many of Boyd’s characters—among them a film director in “Notebook No. 9,” and a writer in the title story—are tormented by their efforts to know and possess their subjects. Through their creations, they wish to achieve knowledge of another person, yet every attempt at illumination darkens inevitably into obfuscation and estrangement. When one enlarges a photograph, seeking a closer look at the subject at hand, the details become cloudy and blurred, and it is in this way that Boyd’s characters approach the objects of their longing: every approach is followed by a departure, every attempt at clarity devolves into hazy uncertainty and loss.
This desire to possess the elusive through one’s art is most explicit in “Notebook No. 9,” in which a struggling film director records his pursuit of Tanja, the star of his last movie. The actress continues to dismiss him, yet he refuses to relinquish her or thoughts of their work together:
I must start thinking about my next film, but I can’t let The Sleep Thief go. While I still dream about Tanja all the time, the film, our film, lives on, as if we’re playing out the lost, last reel.
The appeal of art, then, is in its seeming permanence: that which we lose in life can be preserved on celluloid, on paper, attaining a kind of tangible grandness. Our efforts at translation—that is, our attempts to capture our lives in art, and make life as permanent and perfectible as art—are, to Boyd, the source of our anguish. Aside from a few unfortunate paragraphs that do away with punctuation in order to evoke the mayhem of intoxication, and a peculiar affection for the word “refulgent,” Boyd effectively captures the dizzying feeling of moving towards an ever-receding horizon in prose that is at once casual and controlled. His rendering of dissolution is persuasive precisely because we trust his language: this is how people speak, and this is how people fall apart.
As Tanja becomes more distant, the director’s obsession increases, and the journal ends in the middle of a drunken, hysterical sentence. In the last moments of the story, the director seems to recognize the problem that is most central to Boyd’s work: our desire to make life “artful,” or to preserve our lives in art. The director concludes that the only thing we can be certain of in this world is ourselves: “... the only truths in the world you can really vouch for are those you yourself feel and can therefore verify… All other interpretations of the world beyond yourself are therefore suspect.” Not a page later, in the final lines of the story, he follows this thought with “Tanja Baiocchi has returned to live with Pierre-Henri Duprez I am not happy I too am bad with separation the problem with me is that I never.” And here the story ends, on the brink of self-knowledge. Taken to its extremes, Boyd suggests, fascination not only distances us from others but from our selves. Preservation through art has become annihilation.
Boyd explores the dislocating effect of art further in “The Ghost of a Bird,” in which a solider injured in World War II loses his memory and can only recall the details of a story he wrote, believing them to be the facts of his own life. The solider, Gerald Gault, is unable to recognize his own parents, yet “remembers” the intensity of his love for the fictional Sylvie. The story is narrated by a doctor, who concludes, after Gault’s death, that:
That part of his undamaged brain that most sustained him had been a memory of something his imagination once produced… It was more solid and tangible to him than the fragmented physical world he found so hard to shape and comprehend.”
The director’s hypothesis does not hold; there are moments when we do not know even our own selves. Through the character of Gault, Boyd suggests that we all may fall into worlds of our own making. Not only can our creations distort others, but we can lose ourselves in art: life is not fiction, and when fiction becomes life, our lives are no longer livable.
Although Boyd’s collection approaches the macabre, occasionally Poe-like in its insistence that darkness that is lurking just outside our door, he is also successful on a lighter, more comedic level. His story “Beulah Berlin, an A-Z,” which originally appeared in The New Yorker, is one of the more charming pieces in here. Narrated by Beulah Berlin, a performance artist, the story is an alphabetical list of seemingly unrelated words, fragments that coalesce into a portrait of the artist. A piece on orgasms ends with the word “England,” which provides the title of the “G” section, Glands. This random selection of words, this occlusion of detritus, leads us to an unexpectedly resonant passage on the death of Berlin’s father. Here, obsession wears a more playful face, but nevertheless bears the mark of Boyd’s hand. One of the last sections of Berlin’s list begins with “Weltverbesserungswahn,” a German word that translates to the belief that the world could be better. This is the affliction that plagues all Boyd’s men and women, and though Beulah Berlin manages better than most, it seems that dismay only begets further dismay: the harder we try to create peace and meaning through art, Boyd suggests, the more fragmentary and unknowable our worlds become.