In an interview about her bestselling debut, The Lifeboat, Charlotte Rogan states: “The best writing opens a person’s mind rather than closing it.”

Rogan Now and Again

Little, Brown and Co, 2016

Readers of Now and Again should pay attention, because her second novel is over 400 pages long and it is written to satisfy open-minded readers who also appreciate open-endings.

“Understanding people like ourselves is no great trick, but fiction can put us in someone else’s shoes and allow us to question our assumptions in a way that makes us better people. Mostly, doing the right thing starts with asking questions rather than blind obedience to dogma, and one of the things fiction does best is to ask questions.” (Interview with January Magazine, 2012)

It’s like she was already talking about Now and Again, which presents a story from twelve different perspectives. Each of these characters is bent on doing the right thing. Many of them are preoccupied with big questions, all of them with small ones (if only about their uncertainty how to handle the other people in their lives who are asking big ones).

And it’s about conflict, small ones (like differences of opinion about whether a blouse is suitable for office wear) and big ones (like war).

At first, there are two sets of characters: one on the home front and one on the battle front. But thematically the stories are linked from the start, with the character of Maggie Rayburn.

She was the character who first took hold for Charlotte Rogan when she began writing Now and Again. (She discusses the themes, characters, and motivation for writing in three short videos: the remainder of the quotes about crafting, which I’ve included, are drawn from these.)

Not only does Maggie figure most predominantly throughout the kaleidoscope of characters, but she inadvertently offers the-closest-thing-to-closure which Now and Again has on offer, by cinching a central theme from beginning to end, in a tight little circle that cannot be discussed in any greater detail without spoilers.

In the novel’s opening pages, Maggie is faced with a decision, whether to steal a top-secret file from the office she works in, at the munitions plant.

“She had [taken something that wasn’t hers], and now she had to do something with the evidence – evidence that was more like ammunition than she liked to think.” Immediately the parallels emerge, the ways in which an action can be as dangerous as a piece of artillery.”

Although a gripping and complex storyline, Maggie’s sole voice wouldn’t adequately explore the terrain that Charlotte Rogan is drawn to. “A single character is not capable of either knowing or expressing the truth.” She deliberately sought to include other voices in Now and Again. “The truth is not a single coherent thing.”

Not all of the characters in the novel seek this kind of complexity. “He liked watching the water smooth over it and imagining the whole mysterious world roiling beneath the surface, filled with creatures that would live and die without knowing a thing about Lyle’s world, just the way he wouldn’t know a thing about theirs.”

Some deliberately seek something quieter. “If he had had a life philosophy, it would have involved not complaining and blending in.”

Whereas others stand out by their very nature, others by circumstance. “It was as if he had crossed into a parallel universe and was searching for a way back. He had assumed the disconnection must have happened in Iraq, but now he realized he had been looking out the window all his life and only rarely making contact….”

Some deliberately protest the status quo. “Human beings were being trafficked for corporate interests right underneath everyone’s noses!”

Others debate the proper course of action/inaction:

  “As she prayed, it occurred to her that prayer was the only thing worth doing, the only truly dgood thing, because all actions had unintended consequences, and because people who acted were always in the gravest danger of being wrong.
But so, of course, were people who prayed. Perhaps it was wrong to pray for particular people or results.”

What to do. What to not do. There are so many contradictions in this novel. One character’s solution is another character’s biggest problem. One character is presumed to be pursuing one course of action, but in fact is motivated by something else entirely and steering a bicycle in the opposite direction.

“It was disconcerting to be misunderstood. But how did a person tell his or her story exactly the way it was?”

Charlotte Rogan clearly states: “Truth and even reality are different for each one of us.”

But at least one of her characters would agree with her statement: “So the world will probably never be peaceful just the way it will never be just, but to not be motivated by idealism doesn’t make you more realistic, it makes you directionless.”

Now and Again is motivated by idealism, but ultimately readers are responsible for assembling their own understanding of its roots.