IT'S hard enough to know what to care about in life, much less in fiction. Certain people, certain books are like black holes for your effort and affection. No matter how much you throw at them, nothing comes back. Whether you read for pleasure or wisdom or both, a book should not leave you with less of either than you had before you started it.
Irini Spanidou's third novel, "Before," is set in downtown New York City in the 1970s. Its characters are caught between freedom and social norms; youth and age; creation and destruction; idealism and cynicism. Beatrice is 25. Her mother died in childbirth. There was money; Beatrice went to Barnard College and showed some promise as a writer. She slept around, proud of her insouciance. She met a painter named Ned, fell in love and married him, then took a small, boring job at a publishing house and never wrote another word. The marriage went bad. This is where we meet her -- aimless, drinking too much and unhappily married.
Why bother with Beatrice? What can we learn from her? Do we even want to understand how she got to this point in her life? Spanidou is not going to use art to manipulate us into caring. Her writing is straightforward, even plain. She does not describe place or evoke the novel's period in history. We barely know what her characters look like, much less anything about their environment. The 1970s world of struggling artists in New York was not pretty. This is not "A Year in Provence" or "Under the Tuscan Sun." The young people in "Before" are, whether you like them or not, sacrificing life for art.
Spanidou gives us little reason to engage with Beatrice or Ned or Beatrice's sidekick Faye or any of the other characters -- all of them pathetically in love with Beatrice. Why do they love her? It must be because she's beautiful, since not a single interesting thought comes out of her mouth. Clearly, she's in deep existential trouble, which does provoke a little sympathy -- it's something to sink your teeth into, anyway. She thinks about the time before she was married when she would "give herself to men easily and freely. She hadn't known what love was then. She hadn't known the beauty of her soul, hadn't known that there was something pure to sully." She reflects that "[i]f love didn't last, if love wasn't true, nothing could justify life." Don't go there, Beatrice! You've got more to offer! And yet, nothing feels real to Beatrice; she's lost her will to live.
As for Ned (who supposedly paints in the style of Rothko, De Kooning, Pollock and Twombly -- though the world has yet to notice) -- it is impossible to find anything redeeming in his narcissistic, abusive self. "Ned was a short man," Spanidou tells us, "prematurely bald. Broad shoulders and the intensity of his bearing made him look taller than he was.... Now, he leaned the small of his back against the counter by the stove, taking deep drags as he smoked and letting the ash lengthen and fall off; his eyes were small with exhaustion and bloodshot from alcohol, though drunkenness had drained out of him and he felt, if anything, too sober." He makes Beatrice pose nude and treats her with a callous disregard for her ambitions, however faint they may be.
There's a lot to unlearn from college creative-writing courses. But show-don't-tell is one of the few platitudes that brings a writer deeper, closer every time. Spanidou is a merciless lecturer. Paragraphs after we meet Faye, the author writes: "Faye took her sable coat out of the hallway closet and slung it over her right shoulder. She rode roughshod over convention but in small, surprising ways stuck to code." Here, she gives Ned similar treatment: "He tended to pick up women with an eye to where he'd find the least resistance and no fuss after. At twenty-two he thought he had life down pat: you work hard, you tell nobody your business, you don't give a sucker an even break."
Such flat statements should at the very least be embedded in some larger sense of how a character moves through the world, interacts with others and got to be the way he or she is. Without that kind of context, there is nothing here except for unpleasant people who tell you too much about themselves in the first five minutes after you've met them. All you want to do is get away.
"Before" is a rough draft, an outline, a teleplay. It has a flat, sad, empty feel to it -- not because of its time or place, or even the inner conflicts of the people it portrays. Rather, its emptiness comes from the gulf between the inner lives of its characters and their paper doll outer lives. They hold hands in a long chain guarding any meaning we might take away from Spanidou's efforts. There's just no way to pass through.