Buzzed Books #9 by Jordan Magill
Brett Anthony Johnston’s Remember Me Like This
Too often novels read as though authors imagine complex topics demand florid, even labyrinthine, sentences. Perhaps they see Proust’s magisterial–and mammoth!–examination of sense and memory, In Search of Lost Time, as their touchstone. Yet one mark of a gifted storyteller can also beto distill complex, often imponderable topics into a draught of clean clear prose. Indeed, that’s the sensation one returns to again and again, and always with admiration, when carried away by Brett Anthony Johnston’s mediation on love and the unhealed wounds of loss in his long awaited debut novel, Remember Me Like This.
Readers unfamiliar with Johnston’s previous work may know him by reputation. His collection of short stories, Corpus Christi, won wide recognition. His work has appeared in a range of journals as well as several editions of Best American Short Stories. Many writers treasure Naming the World, an anthology of essays on writing and exercises by famous authors—edited by Johnston. Fans may feel some trepidation at his long form debut; many a fine short storyist has wiped out when first trying to ollie the novel. Johnston, however, doesn’t just clear the novel. He soars.
Given the opening and subject matter–a body discovered floating in Corpus Christi Bay and a family barely surviving a child’s disappearance–this book could too easily have descended into sickly melodrama. Instead, Johnston begins well into the middle of the story, indeed almost at the beginning of its end. Four years before the first page, Justin Campbell (age eleven) vanished. That torturous four-year interregnum has wrecked his family. His history teacher father, Eric, is ensconced in an affair with a wealthier married woman, an affair from which he seems to take no pleasure. Eric and his wife Laura, Justin’s mother, no longer touch. Eric’s father, Cecil, watches his son’s family suffer from the pawnshop he owns, helping as best he can. Laura spends her time volunteering at a sea lab, caring for a rescued sickly dolphin. From the very beginning, we see inside Laura’s psyche, the thoughts to which she cannot give voice, her resentment and anger.
Over the years, she’d purposely slammed her fingers in a desk drawer; she thrown sweet tea into a fat woman’s face at the castaway after the woman said, I’m still just so broken up about your boy. And then there were the times when she locked the bathroom door and sat in the empty bathtub, watching the day succumb to night. Twice she’d come so unglued in public someone had to call Eric at school to come and get her.
Justin’s brother, Griff, now older than Justin was at the time of his disappearance, spends his time skateboarding in the drained kidney shaped pool of the “half razed Teepee Motel” and is inching into his first romance. Even four years later, the family still spends time regularly refreshes missing posters and maintains a 1-800 tip line in their kitchen.
Cracks are beginning to appear in the Campbell family’s resolve. Eric wonders, “Who would be the first to speak of him [Justin] in the past tense?” As elsewhere, here Johnston demonstrates his gift for language, his sharp eye for detail, his understatedability to capture emotion. Readers and characters alike are left unsure if these lives can recover, for “Their world was discolored, muted, perforated by helplessness.” Through shifting perspective the reader peeks into the dark recesses of each of these character’s inner worlds. What we see isn’t pretty—such as Laura’s bitterness, and or the secret thatthat Justin was plainly her favorite or Justin’s sense of his own victimhood or Giff feeling orphaned and his secret guilt–but it feels real and is always described with equal parts sympathy and honesty. From the first, this Johnston delivers the family’s grief and loss through myriad symbols: Cecil’s pawnshop, Laura’s dolphin, and that abandoned motel.
Johnston is a writer interested in his characters’ relationships, both with each other and with themselves. Thus he surprises us with the most disruptive event possible: he gives his characters what they want. A flea market vendor recognizes Justin. The police swoop to the rescue, capturing his kidnapper. Justin is returned home. To everyone’s surprise, he is not just alive, but has been living with his captor nearby in Corpus Christi. And not exactly under lock and key. Despite the joy at Justin’s return, the sudden urge to resurrect all that was lost, the debris of those “lost” years, weigh on the family.
More than these tangible items, the real weight are those years Justin spent with his captor, Dwight Buford, and the way the events of those years remainbeyond his family’s understanding. As Justin meets behind closed doors with prosecutors and his social worker, the Cambell family–like the reader–is left very much in the dark. And again–just as with the reader–imagination and human nature leads them to conjure the worst.
What words, she wondered, did her son have to utter in those meetings? What language formed in his mind? What vile combination of letters was he forced to hold in his mouth and then spit out? Laura’s stomach reeled. She worried it was all too intense, too draining and agonizing, and she watched Justin for signs that she should step in and call off the whole business….
Johnston balances this enforced ignorance against the rest of the story in a way that keeps the reader turning the page. Not only do we care for these characters but, like his family, we are overtaken by a prurient curiosity.
Johnston knows how to paint guilt on the page. Instead of baroque sentences, he opts for clean straightforward prose, allowing hischaracters their own voices.
This leads to the biggest, most thrilling surprise of Johnston’s novel–the story is quiet. Everything about this plot seems to lean towards being “ripped from the headlines,” but there is none of the expected bombast or fireworks. Instead Johnston gives his readers an authentic view that quickens with reality. His clean prose evokes not the sparseness of Raymond Carver, but instead comes fluid and natural. Where a lesser writer might offer explosions, Johnston’s characters swallow back tears.
Pair with: Texas Tea.
A recovering political consultant, Jordan Magill is an alumnus of NYU’s MFA program in Creative Writing (to which he received a fellowship, as well as fellowships to both the Squaw Valley and the Tin House writer’s conferences). He has taught at NYU and for Stanford’s EPGY program. He is currently working on a novel about intellectual life in late ’30s Warsaw. Jordan lives in Sacramento, CA with his wife, three children, two dogs, and, on occasion, a quite fickle cat.