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Robert Stone’s Bay of Souls

November 19, 2010

In one of his letters, my advisor from VCFA recommended several novelists, among them Robert Stone. I had never read any of his work, and I chose Bay of Souls randomly from the list of his novels carried by my university library. It is an engaging, emotionally harrowing book, which caught me in its first pages and carried me, rather quickly, to the end. Just after I finished the novel, I read Peter Brooks’ essay “Freud’s Masterplot,” (also an advisor recommendation) in the anthology of criticism and theory, The Novel. As coincidence sometimes has it, Stones’ novel fits many of the points made by Brooks in his essay.

Bay of Souls tells the story of the gradual dislocation and emotional destruction of the main character, Michael Ahearn. At the beginning of the novel, Michael is an ordinary English professor in the Midwest, unhappily married, with one son, who drinks a lot. He meets a colleague, a French-American woman called Lara, with whom, predictably, he has a love affair. What’s unpredictable about their relationship is that Lara has a penchant for violence, danger and a cult-like religion practiced on the island where she grew up. She claims that her soul has been taken, and convinces Michael to go to the island with her to help her retrieve it. I don’t like to summarize a novel like this, because what sounds overly dramatic or simplistic in summary is actually very finely rendered.

There are many interesting aspects to the novel, but below I’ll focus one way that it intersects with certain key ideas in Peter Brooks’ theory. Briefly, Brooks explicates the impulses and movements of narrative using Freud’s essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” as a model. Some keys to this model are: the notion that “the beginning in fact presupposes the end” (332); that as readers we feel a drive toward the end; that novels are created through metonymies that coalesce into metaphor; that repetition and form work as a way to bind, create, and intensify meaning; and finally that novels, while pushing toward ending and beginning, must include detours, subplots, middles, in order to create tension, be of a length, and accrue meaning enough to satisfy the reader.

(Of course since this is Freud, all of this has to at some point be related to sexual arousal and orgasm, as well as birth, life and death but that’s not what I’m interested in here.)

As a writer half-way through the first draft of a novel, I am keenly aware of how important the beginning is, and how–because the end is in the beginning–difficult it is  to write a really strong first chapter without knowing how the novel is going to end. As a reader, in contrast, I usually simply absorb that all important first chapter and let it propel me forward. My experience reading Bay of Souls, though, was oddly different. During my first reading of the first chapter, I had a strong feeling that what was being presented there would be inextricably related to how the story unfolds and ends. I’m not sure how to account for that feeling, except the sharpness of focus with which the details are presented, almost as though the background were out of focus so that the image in the foreground would leap out. (This is intended to describe how I felt while reading, not the actual technique employed by the author, which remains opaque.)

First there is the scene between father and son where the son, Paul, tries to convince his father to let him join a hunting trip. They discuss the ethical and religious implications of hunting, and with this, the religious attachments of Paul, Michael, and Kristin, Michael’s wife. In a subsequent scene in the first chapter, Michael is on the hunt for his favorite bottle of Irish whiskey, and much is made of the search, including the barmaid who sells him the bottle, and his fantasy of her: “Would she like poetry with a joint, after sex?” (11). Then a scene, while Michael is waiting for prey, of a stranger, a man who has shot a deer and is trying to get the dead animal back to his truck in a wheelbarrow. The description of the man’s fumbling attempts to move the carcass goes on for three pages, with Michael’s response alternating between hilarity, terror and rage. “It was shocking,” Michael thinks as the man finally disappears, “the satisfaction you took in contemplating another man’s disgrace. Another man’s atoned for your own” (19). And finally, the news comes to Michael, who is away for the night, that Peter, Michael’s son, has been found by Kristin after being missing for hours. He’s half frozen and lucky, in the end, to live.

In this first chapter are many (all?) of the important elements of the novel–the end in the beginning that Brooks writes about in his theoretical essay: hunting, religion, alcohol, sex and sexual fantasy, death or near death, disgrace and atonement. In the first chapter, these themes, with highly specific enactments and images attached, are introduced in order to be developed, repeated, and finally concluded, to some extent, by the ending.

The last chapter of the novel shows Michael, having returned from his trip to the island with Lara, living in student housing, drinking and attempting to reconnect–with his wife, his son, Lara, anyone. He borrows a gun from one of the old friend’s he used to go hunting with, makes a scene in front of the house where he used to live, where the other friend he hunted with is now sleeping with his wife, then drives out to the same bar where he bought the whiskey in the first chapter. He meets the barmaid he fantasized about, but she is now confined to a wheelchair, either from catastrophic illness or drug use, the true story is unclear. Finally, he leaves the car, drunk, ill and dizzy, and Lara arrives on a black horse. She accuses him of betraying her, though she says she “was delivered. You could say God was good” (248). Michael, in turn, tells Lara that she “took [him] to hell… It was the kingdom of hell. I’m still there” (248).

I did not love this novel but I was fascinated by it. The way Stone sculpts the story, in particular the beginning and the ending, is both impressive and inspiring. It felt like a short story in that respect (though I have some questions about some of the material in the middle). It felt like a jewel, a piece of art, not at all static– tragic and moving and beautiful, all at the same time.

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