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Parents decipher the language of grief

ABC A Novel David Plante Pantheon: 256 pp., $23

August 22, 2007|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live," according to one of Joan Didion's most memorable apothegms.

We tell stories of the dead to keep them somehow alive. In the mind's memorial labyrinth, darkness is mysteriously fecund, but silence is annihilation. We pronounce the names and stories of those whom mortality has claimed in the hope that their sound will live on. The immortality our faculties can grasp follows because -- as the poet wrote -- others "adopted my echo like a child."

Over the last couple of years, American writers have made remarkable contributions to the literature of grief and loss through which this storytelling process proceeds. There is, of course, Didion's own already classic "The Year of Magical Thinking." The nonfiction author and commentator David Rieff recently completed a rigorously somber and deeply affecting memoir of his mother, Susan Sontag, and her last illness. (I'm indebted to his manuscript for reminding me of Didion's remark.) Now, the distinguished author and teacher David Plante has written "ABC: A Novel," which makes a luminous and unsentimentally consoling fictional addition to our consideration of the survivors' lot.

Plante's 10 previous novels and, particularly, his Francoeur Trilogy -- "The Family," "The Woods" and "The Country" -- have won the author a dedicated following as a so-called "writer's writer," though he probably remains better appreciated in London, where he spends part of every year, than in New York, where he has taught for many years at Columbia University.

Gerard, the protagonist of "ABC," is, like so many of Plante's narrators, an American of French-Canadian descent. Like their creator -- for whom French was a first language -- all are steeped in that mystically sacramental and richly symbolic Catholicism that New England's Francophone immigrants carried south from their homelands in Quebec and Acadia.

"ABC" begins with that most unacceptable of tragedies -- the death of a child. Gerard, professor of Spanish at a small New England college, his wife Peggy and their 6-year-old son Harry are summering in their New Hampshire cottage. While canoeing together on the lake they glide into a cove where a long-ruined house stands on shore. Though they've passed it many times, Harry insists that he wishes to explore it. Peggy is reluctant. Gerard -- suddenly seized by one of those unlooked-for spasms of paternal affection -- indulges the boy and goes ashore. Little Harry, suddenly frightened, attempts to draw back at the door but is encouraged to enter by Gerard. Inside, all is vandalism and disorder, but Gerard pokes at a heap of unburned paper in the fireplace and discovers a sheet of unfamiliar script written in what seems a child's hand. Suddenly, Harry, who has walked into an adjoining room, falls through the rotting floorboards. Gerard plunges after him, injuring himself in the fall, but it's all too late. Harry, who his father gathers into his arms, has died in a pool of blood on the basement's stone floor.

It's a searingly drawn opening scene, but so too are the vignettes of grief that follow, for Peggy and Gerard separate, rather than join, in their solitary grief. The couple has been together for 10 years and married for eight, but the aftermath of Harry's death brings their differences forcefully to Gerard's consideration.

"Why these differences had never before occurred to him as expansively as they did now, he didn't know," Gerard muses while recovering in the hospital. "Maybe everything that had made them believe they were essentially similar, so similar that they were as parents the same person, was in their love for Harry. Since his death, nothing made them similar, and they were two people who had nothing to do with each other."

On his first night home from the hospital, Gerard -- who has refused all visitors -- sends Peggy to retrieve the shorts he was wearing the day of the accident. They are stained with Harry's blood, but he must have the paper he stuffed into his pocket. She agrees, but first: "Peggy knelt by the side of the armchair. She said, 'I've been waiting for you to mention Harry's death, Gerard. I can't tell you how much I've been waiting for that.'

"This, to his own shame, struck Gerard as banal. He didn't want to think of it as banal. He had always thought of Peggy's feelings as deeper than his for being oh so open to expression, while his were closed to expression. . . ."

Gerard soon will find a concrete expression for his grief, for the letters on the scrap of paper are Sanskrit, oldest of the classical Indo-European languages to which our tongue belongs. The more Gerard studies the scrap retrieved from the ruined house, the "more its incomprehensibility took hold of him, and the more the incomprehensibility took hold of him the more he believed it must have a meaning."

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