Those Who Knew, Idra Novey, Hardcover, 256pp, November 2018, Viking
Let me begin with my ending: Idra Novey’s Those Who Knew is beautiful, classically shaped, compulsively readable, an all too relevant exploration of the moral and ethical conundrums of our troubled times, as lavishly wrought as poetry, rendered in sensational, moving prose, a page-turner-work-of-art, layered, like prescient pentimento. Get your hands on a copy of Those Who Knew as soon as you can, move it to the top of your TBR pile, and glory in it. And be warned, you’ll find yourself re-reading and underlining and discovering new colors and richnesses every time.
I don’t want to bury the lede in a gushing paean about the genius of Idra Novey and the compelling, convulsive brilliance of Those Who Knew, so I’ll start by saying this is a novel that tears into the scariest, most alarming layers of the post-November-2016 Zeitgeist using provocatively imaginative plotting told in gloriously structured prose and form, somehow shaping a story in the classic style while making it, too, as current and titillating and terrifying as the improbable nightmare reality show hell that is now masquerading as “real life” as limned by the nightly news.
Long/short — or, rather, short before I get to the long: No matter what kind of reader you are — lover of literary fiction, fan of fast-paced thriller/mysteries, poetry, current events — Idra Novey effortlessly packs them all into less than 250 artfully composed pages, fulfilling the promise of her first novel, Ways to Disappear [I wrote about that here — click this], proving herself to be one of our most gifted and essential writers.
Precisely a week after the death of Maria P. was declared an accident, a woman reached into her tote bag and found a sweater inside that didn’t belong to her.
Thus begins the novel, Lena finds this sweater, and is unable to shed it:
And then, perhaps because she had once risked her life in a similar garment and still regarded that time as the pivotal aspect of who she was, she lifted the sweater over her head and pulled it on.
Lena doesn’t want to be burdened by the sweater nor by what she suspects is the truth about Maria P.’s death, but like a tattoo on the soul, Lena knows she can’t erase what she knows or what that knowing and her past have made of her, and so, she puts the sweater on.
Most people know there is a credibility gap between the people we wish to be (or wish to appear to be) and the truth of who we are, and in the current toxically divisive environment, the magnitude of that gap we’ve come to expect and accept as normal has grown catastrophically, monstrously vast.
Idra Novey’s new novel, Those Who Knew [click here for website], is a profoundly insightful and richly, intricately tessellated exploration about how we rationalize sins of compromise and silence, excuse our own complicity in the undermining of the social contract and civility, and how, by doing so, we tacitly sanction continued corruption and crime committed by those in power who exploit, abuse, and calculatedly oppress and demonize those members of society already marginalized and disadvantaged by gender identity, race, socio-economic stratum, sexual identity, and other class-identifiers.
But Those Who Knew isn’t an exercise in polemical hyperbole; it’s a reasoned, all-too-believable glimpse into the lives, minds, and relationship dynamics of those in power who abuse that power, and those others on the periphery or outside who are afraid to, unwilling to, or unable to stop the rot. Too, the novel explores those ways in which people become complicit in the spread of the immorality epidemic, committing or allowing repugnant acts and behavior and excusing them by citing the greater good, which, all too often, means “benefit and enrichment for me and those like me.”
Lena’s discovery of the sweater — which looks just like one worn in newspaper photos by Maria P. whose death we learned in the novel’s first paragraph was declared accidental — seems to Lena a message from the dead girl who had worked with Victor, a senator and champion of liberal causes who, as a young activist, had been involved with Lena and in a rage, violently assaulted her. She had a sweater, then, much like the one of Maria P.’s which somehow has shown up in her bag.
We follow Lena’s struggle with what to reveal of what she knows, how to determine what is knowledge and what is intuition or suspicion, and how to navigate those spaces between is and might be, truth and spin, day-to-day practical reality and wished-for Utopia, and what is her responsibility in these matters?
Lena, now a university instructor, confides in Olga, a former revolutionary who witnessed the torture of her fellow-revolutionary lover, S, to whom she now writes daily journals while she operates a bookstore dealing in the used volumes that were buried — literally and figuratively — during Olga’s revolutionary years when rule of this un-named country was hijacked by a dictatorial/fascist sort, Cato. And, quietly, Olga also deals pot from the bookstore, a structure without running water, no internet, and spotty phone coverage:
Hold on, Olga said into her cordless phone, I can’t hear you. I’m back in Poetry. Her reception was far better up in Conspiracy, near the front windows. She could hear clearly enough at the register, too, where she rang up the occasional book — and, yes, also sold a formidable amount of weed.
That passage contains a multitude of carefully shaped impressions, its language evocative of a mood, a place, a person absolutely specific, and its concluding few words: “…sold a formidable amount of weed.” in juxtaposition with the earlier “…rang up the occasional book” — are so stunningly right.
Idra Novey writes with the precision and care of a poet, able in a few carefully chosen words to convey what would take others (witness me spending 900 words already and not yet adequately explaining how fantastic this book is) many, many paragraphs if they ever managed to achieve it. She combines efficiency and specificity with a luxuriance of language and imagery so well, it very nearly qualifies as sorcery.
Olga is wary of Lena standing up to Victor, fearing the consequences. Meanwhile, Victor is contriving a marriage with Cristina, the daughter of a power broker in his political party in order to distract from his connection to the dead girl, but besides Lena, Victor’s own brother, Freddy, a gay playwright, has his own suspicions about Victor’s culpability. And from this cast of characters (and others added along the way) radiates a web of connections, complications, conspiracies of silence, deceits for reasons both good and not so good, and a labyrinth of loves, connections, relationships, resentments, desires, plots, grudges, and all the stuff of human interaction in a complicated society in a difficult age.
But, again, I’ve failed to convey the gift Idra Novey has for fashioning a remarkably compelling read, inside of which is a richness of metaphor, parallels, and extraordinary language.
Pages 29 and 30 are a short section in which Victor escapes to a place where he feels safe, unencumbered, the docks, where real men shout at one another as they operate heavy machinery. Only, this day, the docks are full of “people who didn’t belong there. Women and teenagers.Doddering old men with binoculars.” He’s informed the crowds have been attracted by a pair of whales, mating. The man who tells him this has an eye that doesn’t focus correctly, Victor is not up to dealing with “peculiar faces right now” and “no fucking whales.” And from that beginning develops a blossoming of images; a group of teenage boys eating chocolate bars (a giant one of which makes an appearance in one of his brother’s plays) and talking about “whale boners” and the self-revulsion this wakens in Victor, and the way it reminds him of his brother to whom “it had been excruciating to stiffen and deny [Freddy] an answer, to will a growing distance…”, and much later in the novel Victor will end up on Freddy’s couch, hiding an erection, and again travel to the docks, looking for escape but once more disturbed by those who he believes don’t belong, and he’ll respond in a way disastrous, in an echo and expansion of this early scene, this two tight pages in which language repeats and escalates and doubles back on itself, full of whispers and hints of that which is below the surface.
Like I said at the start, Idra Novey’s writing is beautiful, classically shaped, compulsively readable, an all too relevant exploration of the moral and ethical conundrums of our troubled times, as lavishly wrought as poetry, rendered in sensational, moving prose, a page-turner-work-of-art, layered, like prescient pentimento. Get your hands on a copy of Those Who Knew as soon as you can, move it to the top of your TBR pile, and glory in it. And be warned, you’ll find yourself re-reading and underlining and discovering new colors and richnesses every time.
And now, at 1500 words, here I am, going.