When loss is central to a novel, its author faces the unique peril of either fixing the loss—after which there is not much of a story—or dilating it, foregrounding it, and even praising it so that it becomes habitable for a reader. The absence has to be wildly present if it is to be effectual, and the character experiencing it has to be enjoyable enough for a reader to stay with her as she grieves, reassembles herself, or falls abyssward. Leni Zumas’s The Listeners is a novel whose narrator, a thirtysomething bookstore manager and former singer named Quinn, orbits around the loss of her younger sister. Zumas’s effort to preserve that loss is stunningly successful. She reveals Quinn to us in circling episodes, deftly holding the character in the form of a smear of selfhood who doesn’t want to be entire.
The condition of completeness is impossible in Quinn’s world. Since her sister’s death decades ago, she’s been only part-person, and ghost-heavy as the story she gives us. A damaging spectacle of protracted grief, Quinn’s narrative is open enough to let us see her vulnerability and temporally broken enough to get us to believe that her words belong to time itself, which doesn’t care about chronology. There are moments when Quinn acknowledges in interior monologue that she isn’t whole or capable of experiencing herself wholly. For example, in an early scene in which she and her brother Riley are walking to their parents’ house for dinner, she says, “As usual I imagined the destinations of strangers to be firmer than my own. They all had real places to be, where real things happened.” But it’s mostly the angularity of Quinn’s narrative that establishes her fragmented nature. Restless, it drags us back and forth between three periods in Quinn’s life. The first of these is Quinn’s childhood, the era when she loses her sister to a freak bullet. In the second era, as a young woman, Quinn is mostly on the road with her band. The third era, the present, is incomplete, tumescent as it is with pasts.
June 29th, 2012 / 12:00 pm