Alix Ohlin, who already has one promising novel and two short-story collections behind her, possesses an unsettling gift for the quotidian — the lulling, soothing quality of everyday life and speech — even as the most awful things occur. She writes about well-mannered, well-educated people, and surprisingly often, they choose the suicidal way out, a cosmic way of saying, “Excuse me, may I leave the room?”
There are four main characters in her new novel, “Inside”: Grace Tomlinson, a psychologist who has devoted her life to helping people; Mitch Tomlinson, her ex-husband and also a therapist, who takes Grace’s altruism to a national level and tries to save societies; John “Tug” Tugwell, who saw awful things when he was with a non-governmental organization; and Annie Hardwick, a much younger woman and client of Grace’s who wants to make it in the movies. Ohlin braids these lives together, although it must be said that Annie seems an uncomfortable addition, someone tacked on to balance out the comparatively mature — and glum — older folks.
Grace first meets Tug in one of the signature actions of this book. She’s out skiing and comes up on him trying to hang himself from a tree. She untangles him from a rope, goes with him to the hospital and then takes him home. It’s all in a day’s work for Grace, who says to him early on: “If you want to talk, I can listen.” But Tug doesn’t want to talk. He’s extraordinarily reticent, even as their affair develops.
Meanwhile, Grace’s ex-husband is getting ready to leave yet another woman and her gangly, engaging son. Mitch’s excuse is that he’s obligated to help others; so he’s off to an Inuit village full of hard-drinking natives. Soon enough, one of Mitch’s favorites, a young man who serves Mitch as a sort of surrogate son, is described this way: “He drank a pint of vodka and stepped onto the highway in front of a truck in the middle of the night. The trucker’s in the hospital. No note or anything.”
“And there it was,” Mitch thinks. “Another terrible thing in a world already sick to death of terrible things. I should kill myself too.”
The action meanders on like this over 10 years or so. Annie walks into the action as if she has stumbled into the wrong book; she moves from Montreal to New York to a drama festival in Edinburgh, Scotland, and finally takes a shot at television. The irony in this part of the story is that Annie, notoriously thoughtless and selfish, is, in turn, preyed upon by a rootless, ruthless young girl who squats in her home, drags in her boyfriend and then has a baby. Annie’s story ends arbitrarily — the novel isn’t about her, as far as I can see. It’s about whether life is worth living, or whether we should end our existence at once.
Along with Annie’s television section, there’s a 16-page set-piece on Rwanda and the ghastly civil war between the Hutus and the Tutsis: “Kigali stank of rotten bodies, a riot of flies everywhere, and packs of dogs grown so aggressive and fat on human flesh that people were shooting them on sight.” Because of his job, Tug has seen these things, and when, back home in Canada, his wife confesses to an infidelity, he’s less than upset: “He looked down at his fingers and thought of a child running through the streets carrying his own severed hand in the one he still had.”
“This is nothing,” is all he can say to her.
Yes, the world is a terrible place, and the only rational action would be to end it all. Except that we mostly don’t because the world is so beautiful withal. That’s Ohlin’s position, and to suggest that she’s a little heavy-handed about it would be ungallant, at the very least.
See reviews books regularly for The Post.
By Alix Ohlin
Knopf. 258 pp. $25