Running, a novel, by Cara Hoffman, hardcover, 288 pp, Simon & Schuster, February, 2017
Every so often we dedicated, obsessive, addicted readers are gobsmacked out of literary complacency by a writer’s voice so new, so different, so arrestingly outlier we rediscover the joy of being book-crazy.
The first for me occurred in my early teens when I read Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays. Three times in a row. For decades I tried to infuse everything I wrote with Didion’s sardonic meticulousness, a spare, surgical precision of language and illuminating detail, all of which were built on a foundation of unrelenting despairing over the diminution of hope and possibility of basic, human goodness in the world . Of course, I failed.
It took the encouragement and insight of a writer and writing teacher, Bart Yates, during a summer I spent at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, to finally allow me to embrace my own voice; a style that is Balzacian in its digressions and parenthetical ramblings, circuitous and discursive, because I think and see reality in that way: tessellation layered on tessellation, variously opaque and transparent depending on the angle of approach, fluid, kaleidoscopic, without edges or boundaries, morphing into something new between the first and final word of each sentence. I work by piling on stratum, like coats of paint but in slightly different shades in slightly different shapes, a pentimento which, I believe, is the result of having spent a life talking to people I thought spoke my language but who, it turned out, received from me messages I never meant to send or say. It is, I know, difficult to believe when reading my words the amount of time I spend re-writing and editing; but I do. I cut everything I write by at least a third after the first draft.
Now, while I’ve found encouragement from the occasional reader, literature professor, and some book-world professionals, much as I never found the man with whom I could form a lasting relationship, I also never found the agent who said, “Yes, this is a voice I think I can sell.” There is no doubt that my writing, like my personality, has a limited, short-term trick sort of appeal. But it is, without question, writing that could come only from me.
All of which is to say, when one reads a hundred books a year and comes across a voice and work so unique one is forced to read and think in a new way, it is cause for celebration.
From the opening pages of Cara Hoffman’s Running, there was just such an explosion of Saturnalia in my grateful reader’s brain and heart. This isn’t a novel which, having finished, you feel you’ve read so much as an experience you feel you’ve lived. Cara Hoffman’s gut-level writing has a visceral effect: you feel it. Listen to the opening paragraph:
Jasper died a week before I returned to Athens, so I never saw him again. They carried him out and down and he died in England, or maybe on the plane. There were witnesses in the lobby. There was a story in the newspaper. There was, the drunk boy said without raising his eyes to meet mine, proof.
That is a slap in the face of a first sentence. It shocks, this near keening pronouncement of sorrow, grief, and loss. It has the same effect as hearing a too-personal confession from a stranger on a bus, and depending on what kind of person (and reader) you are it will repel or fascinate — or both. Note too the rhythm of those five sentences: The first, with its dichotomy of long, beautiful lilt composed of horrifying words; the second, another lilt but broken up into a triad of tragedy and confusion: They carried him out and down/ and he died in England / or maybe on the plane; and then the third and fourth sentences, a continuation of what had begun in the triad, the staccato, cold, factual punch of loss; and finally, the fifth sentence, which, with its commas, slows us down, finishes us off, seems to promise an explanation for the surfeit of mysterious information in this disclosure.
Spare. Precise. Didion-like. And, extraordinarily illuminating while still leaving us much in the dark.
The first person voice belongs to Bridey Sullivan, seventeen-year-old American who has drifted to Athens where she meets queer couple, Jasper Lethe and Milo Rollack, and the three form a dangerously explosive — literally and figuratively — family who survive by being runners, which are “expats who trawl trains in search of unsuspecting tourists to bring to low-end hotels in exchange for drink money and a free place to stay.”
Bridey’s narration alternates with third person sections, focused mostly on Milo’s experiences and point of view, and while these are more distant than Bridey’s telling of the story, they are more revealing, divulging more history; we know more facts about Milo than we do about Bridey and Jasper.
Jasper. He is the most unknown and yet the most vivid, the one with whom you are most likely to fall in love, the most naked of emotion and unguarded in action, naif and monster. He has echoes of Sebastian in Brideshead Revisited — both in his habitual drunkenness and what appears to be a purposeful slide from well-bred, upper crust British-ness into spent, sordid, wandering wastrel. And, too as in Brideshead, there is the triangular love affair, and the disastrous and heartbreaking mistake of loving people for what is inchoate, for that which we imagine them to be rather than accepting them for who they are.
By the same token, we (and these characters — to one degree or another) want to be loved for who we have pretended to be, for the delusions in which we wrap ourselves. The novel jumps in time — frequently — like memory, which brings me to what I find to be the real genius of this literary treasure.
Cara Hoffman writes in a way close to magical in its likeness to real life. Reality isn’t linear; knowing people isn’t a matter of she was born, she went to school here, then this then that. No, life and knowing people is a process of dribs and drabs of gathering information, impressions made and assumptions affirmed or corrected, a concatenation of disparate events and experiences, emotions and the evolution of cognizance of spirit. In Running, as in life, we are not so much handed information about the characters or told what to think, instead, we are shown who and what and how they are, here and there, allowed — well, required to interpret and fill-in and come to our own conclusions.
And what a gift. There is a transcendent beauty in the sculpted, plangent prose, much of which is describing an oppressive heat and ominous atmosphere of danger and threat. Ennui is somehow made romantic, anomie a goal. Listen to this sentence about two experienced runners, Stephan and Candy:
They were ten years older than the rest of us, and vastly more accomplished at being gone.
Isn’t that beautiful? And, later (although, earlier too — god, I love how Cara Hoffman plays with time and memory) there is this when Bridey asks Milo — with “Jasper’s pale body lying sated between them,” — this question; “Why are you here?”
The question startled him. There were many reasons and he was sure she knew them all. Jasper’s voice, her strange face. The heat of day. The warm sustained painlessness of drink. The music on the platform. The feeling that everything had already ended and this was the place you go after it’s over. He was there for the sound of Jasper’s breathing, his mouth, his cock. Her eyes upon them. Everything’s a symbol, a shape replacing the thought that created it. All the words they’d swallowed, the words they couldn’t say. He knew it was the drug of their bodies had him thinking like that night after night. The nearly invisible down on the back of Jasper’s neck had poisoned him. Why was he here? Who would look after Jasper, he thought, if he wasn’t?
Pardon my lack of erudition and breeding, but, holy shit that’s some gorgeous prose and syntax coupled with trenchant, remarkably unexpected and stunningly revealing insight, a cacophony of sensual impression, emotional reaction, personal philosophy, building to a climax of wanting to be needed, and all told in the voice of a poet, which Milo becomes, many of his pieces of the narrative taking place long years after the center of his life, this Athens, this running, with Jasper, with Bridey.
I know, I am going on too long, as I always do, and quoting too much, which I feel I must when the words are so hypnotically gripping. So, before I go, let me say that the final page, its three paragraphs, those six sentences, are breathtaking in their perfection. Without giving anything away, I quote this part of one: “…people gaze in awe at a reconstructed ruin.”
Yes, that, because we, the readers blessed with this unique, arresting, daring, blazingly moving novel, are here, looking back at human ruinations, remade into something beautiful in an entirely different way.
Cara Hoffman deserves a wide readership and Running places her — for me — in that pantheon of modern-day writers and innovators of literary fiction whose next gift to us I eagerly await, knowing of the hundred books I read a year, it will be one that not only does not disappoint, but expands and enlightens me. I know myself well enough to know that now, for a few weeks at least, I am going to have to FIGHT the urge to try to write with a voice like Cara Hoffman’s, which is a voice you MUST READ.