Those words echoed when I read Simon Van Boye’s touching new novel, Presence of Absence. On her face, a memoir fantasy jotting down a dying man, she animates a gentle circularity of richly dimensional and comfortably defined life—while alluding to a broader and deeper project.
I read it twice, pressing the corners of the page to highlight phrases such as “… the drunken memory librarian, whose spam sends [lead] A future where there is often clarity – but also helplessness.”
The book soon became similar to an origami fan.
A gruesome introduction, signed by Van Booy as if it were a deposition, frames the book’s occasion: The New Jersey widow of British author Max Little asked Van Booy to make notes on her late husband’s deathbed in a novel. Van Boye states that he checked the notes and agreed. At the request of widow Hadley, all names were changed. But discerning readers may note that the cover image of this book – a young woman reading quietly beside what looks like a hospital bed – is attributed to Max Little.
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Other peeping puzzles. Facts from Van Boye’s private life, which the author has shared in interviews, have been cited as Little’s: Childhood in Wales; Allusions to a Jamaican mother and “a brown hand like mine”. Van Booy has weaved elements of his own experience, subtle but profound, into a more universal composite, and he tells each man.
Max begins his diary during what he knows are his last days. Soon he will convey how, in his struggle with that knowledge, he came to the realization of “there is something beyond the Self”: that we transform after death into another form of life, and this language, however imperfect and chaotic, can sometimes help bridge the gap between The dead and the living. “Language is a map that leads to a place that is not on the map.”
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From its inception, “Being” is full of blood with statements that make you inhale sharply. “Childhood is a series of little disasters that conspire to become something precious.” “Life does not begin when you are born – it begins when you commit yourself to the devastating loss that results from it.” [loving someone]. “Death has given me the luxury of time by taking it from me.” “You can’t change the past, just look for clues in a puzzle where looking for clues is a clue.”
However, these are just the sidelines, where the bewildering story of “being” unfolds. I loved Max Hadley since childhood, when I saved him from a fierce beating in the schoolyard. They find each other again in their teens, after the death of Hadley’s father. When Max and Hadley, as married adults, lose an infant, the marriage almost ends. Max explains, “Our close breakup wasn’t because we didn’t love each other, but because it hurts to love anything.” Now, after years of recovery (which appear in the sweet flashbacks of the couple’s fidelity), Max has received a diagnosis of a terminal illness.
Understandably, he gets scared and runs away a bit to collect himself. But after quickly following his (quite described) fear and confusion, Max’s great mission becomes clear: he must devise a way to deliver the news to the lover of his life–kindly and carefully enough that he can somehow protect her from her destruction.
These events arrive realistically, as a kind of name-calling in the human predicament. Readers feel at once a part of Max’s struggle to figure out what to do, much of it narrated with sly wit and almost unspeakable tenderness. When Max tells Hadley she looks great, she replies, “Oh, you always say that. It doesn’t mean a thing,” he gives a more elaborate compliment: “You look like Maid Marian like a lottery-winning bitch.” When she laughs, he says, “The voice filled my whole body.”
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However, ‘Presence’ also flows with so much depth and strength that it’s hard to describe. Fortunately, sensory solace (food, weather, and scenery) lightens the trip—as do allies: a wonderful healer, and the occasional new friend that proves effective. In some of the most beautiful prose in Van Boye’s work, Max contemplates existence, memory, and time – a voice with which everything is at stake and not a single nanosecond is lost. “[W]Could it be a record hat shape he forgot to take? Look around you. Better yet, push your hands across the skin of the river; lying down in any area; It spreads among the roots of trees. Inhale the dusk.” The result, Max insists, is “you must be willing to love everyone. Because anyone can be anyone.”
This vision may be outdated, but Max understands well the tendency of the living to decide, according to Martin Amis, “that it’s too bad about others” and that our time here is, in a way, forever. “Presence” quietly sweeps these concepts aside, replacing them with a wide-open marvel.
Joan Frank’s recent books are “Juniper Street: A Novel” and “Late Work: A Literary Biography of Love, Loss, and What I’ve Been Reading”.
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