By Robert Anderson
Ballantine. 367 pp. $24.95
It's never good form to speak ill of the dead, perhaps, but Sylvia Plath would understand if someone pointed out that her writing, memorable as it was, lacked subtlety. After all, one of her best-known poems, "Daddy," casts her father as a Nazi and Plath herself as the six million. The poem ends with a stake through her father's heart and the seething line "Daddy, Daddy, you bastard, I'm through." Call Plath what you want, but you can't call her ambiguous.
Robert Anderson, whose debut novel, Little Fugue, deals with Plath's suicide and its aftermath, has inherited her aversion to nuance. Unfortunately for Ted Hughes, the late poet and Plath's widower, Anderson doesn't subscribe to the "honor the dead" school of writing. Little Fugue starts out as a kind of mash note to Plath and quickly becomes a hate letter to Hughes, whose infidelity and coldness are posited as the reasons behind Plath's suicide. Only a few pages into the book, Anderson points out that the dead can't sue for libel. "With Ted gone, we can now muse behind his back and over his grave as well," Anderson writes, with more than a hint of authorial gloating.
Anderson tries to juggle four points of view in this novel, three of which relate directly to Plath's death and one of which meanders aimlessly through a sociological timeline of New York City. Plath's final word comes less than one-third of the way through the book, leaving Hughes and Assia Wevill, the poet with whom Hughes was having an affair, to chronicle the days and years after. Although Anderson clearly has no affection for either of the two, Hughes comes off worse, salivating at the thought of Plath's postmortem royalties and sleeping with a suicidal teenage girl not long after his wife kills herself. (Even Hughes as a child isn't spared; our first glimpse of the youngster shows him threatening to beat up a gay schoolmate.) Wevill spends the balance of the novel pining for Hughes's affection, plotting to keep him to herself, just hours after Plath's body has been driven to the morgue. In the novel's most affecting scene, Wevill falls asleep in one of Plath's gowns, then rushes to take it off before Hughes returns. The gesture might be obvious, but it's one of the only times Anderson chooses a subtle approach, letting the action speak for itself without being overloaded with heavy adjectives.
The fourth point of view belongs to a character named Robert Anderson, which seems to prove that the author-as-character conceit in contemporary fiction isn't going away soon. It's unclear how similar Anderson the character is to Anderson the author, but there is at least a chronological difference -- the character is a high school student in 1963, the year of Plath's suicide; the author was born in 1964. Anderson's connection to Plath is that he likes her. And that's it. To be fair, he likes her a lot, having been given Ariel by a kindly nun when he was a troublesome child. He likes the way she looks, too, or at least what he thinks her looks signify. "In photographs, she is a captured death upon arrival," Anderson sighs. "She is a bright, evasive, and eternal open question. She is wild and cannot be tamed. She is a wound that can be nursed and never healed." While Plath, Hughes and Wevill variously come to terms and fail to come to terms with their lives, Anderson lives in a series of New York apartments and shows a Forrest Gump-like ability to find himself intertwined in significant historical events. He's there for the 1968 riots at Columbia University, he becomes a heroin addict and deals with an ex-lover's struggle with AIDS, and he is six blocks from the World Trade Center when the first airplane hits.
Unsurprisingly, Anderson is the most convincing character in the novel, even when he's having cringingly lame philosophical discussions with his lover, Sabbath. And that kind of conversation -- both precious and pointless -- is emblematic of Anderson's tendency to overwrite, dropping obscure adjectives and phrases like "fallopian underground railroad" and "self-willed cosmos of her uterus." It could almost be forgiven if there was a great story behind it, but there's just a confused series of events that are never satisfactorily tied together. Even Merv Griffin and John Lennon, called in as characters at the end, can't help explain what Anderson has to do with Plath, Hughes and Wevill. (The Griffin character is written with surprising wit; Lennon is wooden and charmless.)
Plath might not have been subtle, but she was concise. Poets almost always are. That's one lesson Anderson could have taken away from his copy of Ariel. There is promise in Little Fugue, but it's difficult to tell why Anderson needed almost 400 pages to write what could have been boiled down to "Ted, Ted, you bastard, I'm through."
Michael Schaub is associate editor of the literary webzine and blog Bookslut.com.