In Claire Tristram’s debut novel, After, a 9/11 widow, an unnamed “woman who was not quite stable,” decides to take a lover. “Day by day,” Tristram writes, “month after month, without her attending to it, her grief had subtly changed its shape, until what was left was not quite grief at all, but something she could only describe as desire.”
On the one-year anniversary of her husband’s death, she drives to a secluded, run-down resort hotel on California’s coast, where she plans to rendezvous with her new lover, whom she met a few weeks prior at a convention. “He had the face you might see these days in the pages of any newspaper. The deep-set eyes. The youthful, fawn-colored skin. The skin of a martyr.” The widow’s lover is a Muslim, an Americanized Persian who comes to represent her worst fears and grief, but his religion, his ethnicity, and his skin color lend her escapade a sense of forbiddenness that she finds simultaneously perverse and freeing. She revels in her decision “to do something so unexpected, so clearly outside the role that she had been forced into by her circumstances!”
The exclamation point at the end of the sentence reveals a great deal about After, perhaps more than Tristram intended. More than it conveys the widow’s excitement about her tryst, that punctuation invites us to imagine Tristram’s eureka moment when she conceived the idea for After. This is first and foremost a conceptual novel constructed around the collision of ideas, which determine the events at the hotel and the outcome of the novel. In other words, the characters are secondary and in fact often feel even tertiary to Tristram’s exploration of race, gender, and social relations following 9/11. These people don’t even have names; on one level, their vital data are blurred, their identities protected; on another, they don’t need names to do their jobs.
In a sense the decision to give ideas priority over people is wise, even inevitable. Focusing too much on the characters and emotions, in this case, leads easily to melodrama: 9/11 looms so large over the American psychic landscape that it automatically evokes fresh, prickly reactions in readers, regardless of their political beliefs. So scenes like the widow’s last conversation with her husband have their own terrible impact with little assistance from Tristram, who writes in a prose style so detached that it sounds alternately muted and strangled.
Unfortunately, this detachment occasionally descends into the development of sordid plot devices and pointless abstraction. Tristram obviously intends her characters and their predicaments and emotions to represent much larger ideas about the West and the Middle East, about women and men. “The colors of her feelings ranged so far beyond the sexual,” she writes of the widow’s “feelings,” which she describes cursorily but neglects actually to evoke in their full force. As a result, the novel’s numerous sex acts, which take up at least one third of its length, come across as decidedly unerotic and clinical–all concepts and no bodies. As After proceeds, the two central characters blur at the edges more and more, until they can no longer exist as flesh and bone. Depending on how you read it, Tristram has either exploded their conceptual possibilities or simply reduced them to the ideas they represent.
The problem with a novel as topical as this one (the same problem faced by Nicholson Baker’s Checkpoint) is that it ages so quickly. Originally written as a post-9/11 novel, After quickly became — and will hereafter be read as — a post-Abu Ghraib novel, which burdens it with implications that Tristram could never have predicted and for which the novel is completely unprepared. Most of the final third of the novel is devoted to the two lovers’ ultimate sex act, during which she blindfolds him, binds his hands and feet with coat-hanger wire, whips him, and sodomizes him with her fingers. In the name of sexual humiliation, she forces him to call his wife and leave an incriminating message. Just as earlier scenes are inherently chilling due to their post-9/11 context, this extended scene is inherently chilling following Abu Ghraib. After seeing those horrifying images of Iraqi men naked, humiliated, and tortured by American soldiers (the most infamous of whom is a woman), you can’t read this section the way Tristram intended it to be read: the meanings have changed, the implications have multiplied and mutated.
After cannot bear the overwhelming weight of this new context. It reads like tasteless exploitation and only exacerbates the novel’s many overwhelming problems.