When a Card Just Won't Do
Lucius Shepard’s latest novel Valentine takes the form of a letter from Russell, a well-traveled journalist, to his sometime-lover Kay, a college professor. For 181 pages, he writes about their latest encounter, when by chance a hurricane generously forced them both into seclusion in the Florida Gulf town of Piersall. They spent several days together, making love and reconnecting after six years apart. Russell relates this with some melancholy as Kay has since returned to her husband.
Valentine never wanders far from Piersall, although we get some references to Russell and Kay’s relationship at different times. Valentine has less plot than many short stories, but more sex. There’s probably nothing in literature that can produce unintentional laughter and cringing as frequently as the sex scene. It’s just a high degree of difficulty dive. Shepard doesn’t embarrass himself with the steamy stuff here. Some of it even replaces plot to move the story along and reveal the characters’ feelings. Other times it’s just sex on the page and you’ll be perfectly able to laugh or cringe or get turned on or get turned off or whatever it is you do when you’re reading a sex scene.
Those familiar with Shepard’s other fiction, such as the recommended novel Life During Wartime and the short story collection The Jaguar Hunter, will recognize Russell as a typical protagonist. He’s worldly, cynical yet romantic, capable but not successful and has a lot of sex without getting married. And, of course, Shepard remains a smooth writer with a strong voice. With Valentine, Shepard has ventured slightly out of his usual genres. Although Piersall has an eerie, unreal atmosphere and the ending has an X-Files-ish twist, Valentine can not be classified easily as science fiction or fantasy.
As a single letter, Valentine is also not a classic epistolary novel. Shepard must balance the workings of a letter and the necessities of a novel. Although constructed as an intimate communication, we are not Kay. As readers, we look for character detail, exposition and plot—things that aren’t always at home in a letter between intimates. Russell relates details and entire conversations that would not be necessary for Kay who, after all, was there. He relentlessly uses the first and second person voice with lots of “I did” and “you said.” Although Shepard uses care and style to work his way around some of these problems, the letter structure occasionally seems to falter early when the reader wonders, “Why tell her that? She was there.”
Or was she? I apologize for dragging out that figure from your Intro to Literature course, the dreaded Unreliable Narrator, but there is a good chance the romantic interlude in Piersall is entirely imagined by Russell. First of all, the town seems remarkably untouched by the hurricane that leaves everyone stranded. The electricity stays on, but the phones conveniently don’t work. It doesn’t even rain, but the roads are closed.
Tellingly, Shepard gives the couple an idiosyncratic hobby to imply our story is Russell’s fantasy. Kay enjoys reading exotic stories from Russell about the life they might have shared if she had left her husband. His letters dream up their life together in Bahia or Hawaii. Since from the start we know Valentine is a letter to Kay, it doesn’t seem to be too much of a grad student impulse to interpret it as Russell’s invention of their brief life in Piersall.
This heightens both the romance of the book and its melancholy. The X-Files-ish twist at the end explains Russell’s odd presentation of this romance to one of its participants and coats the book with an additional layer of sadness. Given the structure, we learn far more about Russell than we do about Kay. We never learn her reasons for having an affair beyond fairly simple ones. She is the muse of the book, but her motivations and her plans for the future are a mystery.
Parts of Valentine are not filled in. One might argue that it is an exceptional short story stretched out to short novel length with sex (or, to use the literary marketing term, erotic) scenes. Even remarkable and perfectly enjoyable scenes, such as a wishing well alligator or a date at an arcade, lack a certain connection with a larger story. In the end, the twists that transform Valentine from a recollection of hotel room lust to a haunting and desperate plea override such complaints. Although slim for a novel, Valentine works as a thought piece, an expression of love and a meditation on both love and loneliness.