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The binding energy of human love

Evidence of Things Unseen: A Novel, Marianne Wiggins, Simon & Schuster: 386 pp., $25

June 15, 2003|Wendy Smith | Wendy Smith wrote "Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940."

Marianne Wiggins is not afraid to announce sky-high ambitions in her bold, breathtaking new novel. The author takes as her epigraph a section about plutonium from John McPhee's cautionary 1974 portrait of a nuclear physicist, "The Curve of Binding Energy," then opens her own narrative with a bravura description of the Trinity Atomic Test Site in New Mexico, where the first atomic bomb was exploded: "Somewhere in the heart of North America there is a desert where the heat of several suns has fused the particles of sand into a single sheet of glass so dazzling it sends a constant signal to the moon." Subsequent chapters begin with quotations from "Moby-Dick," and even as she emulates Melville, enlacing flights of scientific, political, social and philosophical speculation within a stirring human drama, Wiggins' voice remains triumphantly her own. "Evidence of Things Unseen" becomes a love story lit up by the heavens.

Ray Foster and Opal Fiske first make love as the Perseid meteor shower erupts above them over the beach at Kitty Hawk on Aug. 6, 1921. Ray -- Fos, as he is known -- is a World War I veteran, a gifted photographer and a dreamy amateur scientist who wants to show people "the soul in the machines." Opal is the practical one -- she introduces herself by fixing his stalled truck -- but she's fascinated by his passion for the unseen world. "I'll tellya -- most things on this earth are plain invisible," says Fos, just before he shows Opal the bones in her feet on his homemade X-ray machine. "Most things?" she asks incredulously. "Until you make them seen," he replies.

The salty cadences of Fos' and Opal's speech balance Wiggins' lavish imagery, conspicuous metaphors and big ideas (note the difference in tone of the lyrical Trinity passage and the lovers' unadorned interchange). Wiggins' text swoops in and out of her characters' thoughts, blurring the boundaries between the voices, demonstrating, in this case, that the uneducated Fos and Opal are as intellectually curious and as morally probing as the narrator, whose reflections sometimes mingle with theirs.

Whether it's Fos watching Opal mull over the notion of spontaneous combustion ("he liked to see her mind unscrew the lid off something") or the narrator slathering on biblical references in a virtuoso riff about how men in Knoxville, Tenn., cook catfish ("some were cayenne-ites and some, god bless their fundamental souls, faced the fire plain with nothing but their faith in catfish"), the underlying subject is human beings' liberating but dangerous belief that knowledge will give their lives meaning.

After their ravishing encounter on the beach -- stargazing has never seemed so exciting -- Fos brings Opal to Knoxville, where he operates a photography studio with his Army buddy Flash Handy. Initially wary, the best friend and wife slowly find their own rapport, creating with Fos a triangle of quiet trust and achievement. But our pleasure in this partnership is muted by intimations that things will go terribly wrong between the Fosters and their friend. Spilled blood seals their estrangement.

Hideous tragedies are nothing new in Wiggins' work; her warm portrait of abiding love embedded in marriage is the real surprise. Brilliantly charting the shifting currents of Fos and Opal's relationship over two decades, Wiggins gradually leads us to the understanding that while, for Fos, his wife is enough, Opal can't be entirely happy without the baby they have failed to conceive -- and her husband knows it. With this poignant, realistic portrait of two people who love one another deeply but not equally, Wiggins may have tapped a vein of common humanity that will bring "Evidence of Things Unseen" a wider audience than her earlier work.

Such novels as "Eveless Eden" (1995) and "Almost Heaven" (1998) were as ambitious as "Evidence of Things Unseen"; "John Dollar" (1989) was very nearly as accomplished. But it was hard with these books to get beyond Wiggins' savage depictions of human nature and society. By softening the bite of her writing, Wiggins has created a story as compelling as it is devastating.

After a miserable stint at her mother's family farm on the Clinch River, Fos and Opal are emancipated from rural drudgery by the New Deal, which gives them jobs with the Tennessee Valley Authority. A few months later, they claim an abandoned infant as their son and nickname him Lightfoot. His arrival was foreshadowed more than 10 years earlier on their honeymoon. When Fos tried to explain the binding energy that "holds things in one piece ... keeps the moon in orbit around the earth," he asked Opal to think of a curve formed by three points. "It's the third that binds the other two together," she exclaimed. Their son is that third point in their lives, as Wiggins writes: "Lightfoot rose and spanned above them, an inevitable third, binding them to promise." Wiggins' use of science and metaphor consistently illuminates her characters' emotions and interactions.

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