annotation by Heather Luby
In The Broken Estate: Essays on Literature and Belief, James Wood’s writes that for a piece of fiction to be successful, it must allow itself to be brought to completion by the reader. For me, a story should allow the reader to live within its characters and even after the story is completed, the reader will give life to those characters by imagining how the story could be continued. Like Woods, I believe that a story should give us a “true lie” by creating narrative consciousnesses so artful that the reader believes in its reality. And if we believe in the reality of the characters and of the story, it will be impossible to put the story down and abandon the pages. The story will continue with the reader.
In the collection A Relative Stranger by Charles Baxter he gives his readers a glimpse into the complex and fitful lives of his characters, who are all ordinary people swimming around in the muck of the world. Baxter creates for us the “true lie” by bringing life to these flawed and perfectly individual characters that each of us could know, as neighbor or friend, or each of us could believe to be ourselves. And just as in life, Baxter’s stories are never really over. Baxter’s stories are moments of truth, pulled from his characters lives and placed before the reader. Baxter refuses to give his readers an ending. He leaves their lives and their struggles open for the reader to complete. This is what makes his fiction brilliantly successful.
In the story, “Saul and Patsy Are Pregnant,” Baxter gives us Saul, a man dissatisfied with his own mediocrity, while simultaneously believing his awareness of himself makes him extraordinary in comparison to his Midwestern neighbors. Yet, he allows the happiness of those he believes to be inferior to him to plague him. The story pulls its reader through Saul’s story of obsession with the McPhee’s and with their happiness, until you reach the end. Upon his discovery that their happiness is as flawed as his own, he feels free again to strive for his own happiness. He attempts to save himself through his love of Patsy, through sex and the ordinary and biological need to create in the world a continuation of self. It is during his moment of climax that he finally feels connected to the world. “He understood everything, the secret of the universe. But just like in real life, in the real world inhabited by the reader, Saul cannot hold onto his feelings of completeness. Reality erodes us. “Having lost the secret, forgotten it, he felt the usual onset of the ordinary…He would never admit to anyone that he had known the secret of the universe for a split second. That part of his life was hidden away and would always be.” Baxter gives his reader no neat and tidy ending. No epiphany or closure. Just like in real life. In this way, Baxter gives us a “true lie.”
Every story in Baxter’s collection ends with a question. It is as if we are watching the lives of his characters through an open window and then he shuts it. We know their world continues to exist and we can’t help but wonder what they are doing. In “A Relative Stranger” Baxter leaves us questioning what will become of this new relationship of “lost” brothers. In “Silent Movie” we are left to wonder where the life of the female protagonist will lead and if her love for herself and the silence of the night will be enough to sustain her. Will she really be happy? In “Snow” we are left to wonder, what kind of teenager did Ben become? Did his insightful observations of his older brother later protect him from the bad judgment of the teen years?
Ultimately, Baxter’s brilliance is the creation of a recognizable spiritual longing within his characters that makes his fiction “real” to the reader. He gives his reader an ordinary universe, inhabited by the familiar, but then he connects with his reader by showing them they are not alone in the doubts and fears we all share. The reader believes in the reality of his characters, therefore, we believe in the stories ability to change us as a reader. This collection is startling and unforgettable.