Like Anne Tyler, the only plot that Marina Endicott has is the passage of time. The events in her novels are ordinary happenings, but there is a delicious sense of unspooling when one falls into one of her narratives.
Close to Hugh is structured over a week’s time and each day is observed from a variety of perspectives, fracturing the narrative like a day is splintered into hours.
Language, from vocabulary to style, clearly differentiates each voice in the novel.
More than one generation is represented, each credible and distinct: from Della’s searching but buoyant tone to L’s hard kernels of observation to Orion’s drifing and poetic style.
Here is a peek into Della’s thoughts:
“drive sickening quickening heart does a loon dive
brain shrunken to a walnut pain in the chest
mystery why he stayed so long: inertia?
no we are soulmates”
(Her segments immediately stand out, when one flips through the book. And the e-book is formatted in such a way to allow readers to adjust their display at the start so that Della’s line-breaks appear properly throughout.)
And here is Hugh:
“Ivy. What the hell was he thinking? He is incapable of anything, any relationship beyond the surly bond with Newell, the snarled strands of obligation to Della, the loose truth of Ruth. Ivy must have been drunk, to nod. Even his name is hard to say: Hugh Argylle, no turning-post in the middle. He called himself Hugo Argylle for a while, in university, but then it started to sound like Hugh Gargoyle. He’s pathetic! He always has been!
But still, quietly, his heart is singing.”
And it is, obviously, Hugh who is at the heart of the novel.
Or, perhaps that should be you are at the heart of the novel.
For the fact that Hugh sounds like ‘you’ creates many opportunities to play with words and understanding.
Puns and wordplay have a dramatic presence in the work.
This is on display from the start, with “Oh, the Hughmanity” on Monday’s title page, and in the direct expression within and surrounding Hugh’s character in particular.
But the entire novel is infused with this spirit. More than a week after I finished reading this book, I was brushing my teeth when I realized that I had completely missed another layer to the punning around. For not only does Marina Endicott play with this on the page, but with the ideas simmering beneath and while I had recognized one aspect of this pun – as it is rooted in one of the significant happenings in Hugh’s life – I had overlooked another layer.
(Isn’t that the best kind of book? The kind that follows you around in your life long after you have finished reading?)
The playfulness sometimes continues on in the characters’ minds as well, as this passage about L reveals: “In twenty minutes this shift will be over, this shit shift, the shifting shittiness that is work, but this is not nearly as bad as other shit would be. Nevaeh’s not in and neither is Savaya so that makes it boring, and too busy, and here’s another fat ass with slumping blood sugar and yes indeedy the one with all the icing, ha ha, you are cute and witty, sir! Thank you for the thirty-cent tip!”
Despite the tight time-frame, there is a great sense of expansiveness as the focus shifts between characters, like a spotlight wandering across a stage.
This is deliberate, my talk of play-acting, for the author has a background in theatre, and it plays a role in Close to Hugh too.
“What a lovely thing acting is, theatre is. Playing at life so well that we believe, we do believe.”
When put like this, it doesn’t not seem all that different from the work of a novelist, who seeks to convince readers that what’s on the page is real, just as an actor seeks an audience to believe what’s on the stage.
But of course there are differences. Just as there are between the theatre and Hugh’s work with art in his gallery, static and motionless.
Nonetheless, on the page Marina Endicott does capture a variety of motions: mostly downward, although the novel feels more like a spiral than a plunge.
“The good visits are worse than the bad visits. Hugh can’t do this any longer, come to this room and watch her dying.
He lets his head fall onto the clean sheet beside her head, to rest with her.”
Hugh has – and you have – had this experience before, this need to watch the unmoving. In Hugh’s case, he has moved his mother into a nursing home. The pressures he faces in his everyday life are immediately recognizable; readers can relate easily. “He’s tired of rain and basements and responsibility.” (Just as one half-expects to meet Anne Tyler’s characters in Baltimore, one can imagine meeting Marina Endicott’s characters in the wider world too.)
The ordinary stuff of everyday life clearly inspires Marina Endicott. “You just don’t want to know, that’s all. Hugh doesn’t want to know either.”
And, yet, one reads on.
“chicken, eggs / milk, cheese, yogurt / grapes, raisins
everything on this list becomes something else
everything that is becomes something else”