It has come to me like a dog comes to its master: tail curled between hind legs, wet muzzle nudging to be forgiven for its very existence. This thought has come: I am not worthy of her.
And so begins Guyanese-born Tessa McWatt's sixth novel, in the thick of Michael's seemingly calm realizations of his middle-aged condition. His contrition, his need for redemption, his humility appear to have come as he is faced with the possibility that Anna, who has had a speech-affecting brain aneurysm, will never be able to communicate with him as she used to. The novel begins and develops in an evenly-paced, controlled manner, with flashbacks of his and Anna's past and their present as a married couple. Its pace and development mirror his outer calm and belie his inner turmoil as well as the unravelling of Anna's hold on speech. It is, for the sake of categorization, as fascinating a case for the psychological novel as one can get.
In an early moment in the novel, Michael observes Anna as she struggles to make connections between utterance and (presuming) thought as they sit together in a cafe:
Anna's hands tremble with a will to order, as if to hold a sentence in them and lay it out flat along a plane of reason. This is not impossible, but she doesn't know that. Instead she picks up her glass of lemonade and drinks. "Cold eating child," she says and grimaces, knowing from the expression on my face that it didn't come out right.
On one hand, he is unsettled by what he sees as her inability to indicate she understands what's going on around her, or to capture her own thoughts with adequate words, and on the other hand, he thinks her use of language is so present, so "in the very act of living," (as he observes at another moment), he wants desperately to be as alive as that:
"Wet, sarcastic hibiscus," she says, and when I glance over at her I see that she has three fingers up, having counted each of the words. Wet. Sarcastic. Hibiscus. Confident she has been successful, she peers out the window. I wonder if she's seeing something I should take note of.
Michael's struggles to make connections between his perception of Anna and her reality, and his own internal and external moral conflicts provide the novel's main tensions. He has had affairs during the marriage, and underneath his outer calm is his inward fear that his wife is fast becoming removed from (is erasing from memory) the past they shared, and is entering a seemingly unblemished present and future where he cannot join her fully. So he feels the urgent need to keep her there in their imperfect, blemished past by confessing his affairs.
Much of the novel details Michael's internal dwelling in their past together--their vacations, their lovemaking, the changes in their relationship over the years. And though he wants to, he can't get around to explaining to Anna the "deadpan muttering" or the "deep chamber of ennui" into which he had fallen and which led to his affairs. He is a kind of unwitting villain in that his desire to confess seems to be rooted in the need to punish her. He wants her to know, for instance, how he'd lifted one woman's leg, placed it on his shoulder to "angle in just so." And he'd like her to know how "fucking great" defiance and betrayal felt, and he confesses inwardly:
When you were at home with the three of them, all still under the age of five, I stayed at work on purpose, trying to gain space. There was another one, not the blonde. A woman darker than you, fiercer, heavier, and so much freer than you. And I blamed you as we chatted over dinner even as you struggled with feeding and weaning. I blamed you.
Yet, in his major outer moment of confrontation with her about his affairs, all he can summon is "Anna! Do you still love me?" His inner villain quickly tries to save the softness of the moment by suggesting that the question should really be "What is love?" because, as he reasons, "I want her to know about the tinny chiming in me that wants her to die, so that I no longer have to feel."
Is it difficult to identify with Micheal's shades of pathos (so to speak)? Well, sympathy for him could come from realizing his frustrations. You can't help but feel sorry for a guy who is confronted with his full humanity--good, evil, strong, soft--as he faces certain and uncertain loss. And perhaps there is even more room for sympathy when we see him interact with his children. He thinks they count on him for things like car advice, tax returns, and mortgages, and laments that "For them I have no inner life." And, as if to counter their perspective of him, he gives his open and honest inner perspective of his relationships with them:
"What? I ask, looking up at each of them. First Fred, with his air of casual control that says he will never be the fool of a man I have become. I wonder who he is fucking these days to make him feel so smug. For him I gave up mornings alone with my wife, where I was safe, when the crow of day meant that all I had to do was roll over and plant myself inside her. For him I put on a tie. Then Charlotte, second born and yet the first to make me want to keep secrets: petty secrets like leaving half an hour early for work, just to be away from home half an hour longer, or pretending to read the paper so that no one would talk to me.
But when I look at Sasha . . . the hatred is rightfully aimed at my own breast.
One can certainly choose from amongst his inner revelations to decide on the particular shade of his villainy--evil for wanting to hurt his wife with his confessions, understandably human for wanting to beat up on himself for his wrongdoing and guilt, and for his unequal but honest assessment of his children . . . The shade one chooses may well depend on the shade of one's marital and parental honesty.
Michael's inner and outer journeys, accompanied by graphic images, are beautifully explored in the novel. And without spoiling the end, I can somewhat safely predict that some may decide that his journey concludes (at the novel's end) in a rather unsatisfying twist. But there is a feel at the conclusion that we have left him as we met him: at yet another hurdle in his middle-aged condition. It is the stuff of real life (psychological realism), and there is much satisfaction in following his journey throughout the novel.
Vital Signs, Tessa McWatt's sixth novel, was recently honoured by being longlisted for the 2012 Bocas Lit Prize for Caribbean writing. If you would like to receive a free copy of Vital Signs, be the first to say so in the comments below, or by email: signifyinguyana[at]gmail.com.