The Physical, the Verbal, the Verbal . . .

By Dennis Drabelle,
a contributing editor of Book World
Wednesday, August 30, 2006


By Christopher Bram

Morrow. 369 pp. $24.95

Late in Christopher Bram's new novel, a minor character remarks, "When Anna Karenina committed adultery, she destroyed her family. Now when people do it, they extend their families, double them."

Such a multiplication has happened to Zack Knowles, the WASP psychiatrist to whom this remark is addressed, and his lover, Daniel Wexler, a Jewish painter who's been having an affair with Abbas Rohani, an Iranian colleague at the college where Daniel teaches. Abbas has two young children with his Russian-born wife, Elena. Yet the extracurricular and cross-cultural activity leads not to Karenina-style alienation but to a larger intimacy that embraces even the kids, for whom the male couple sometimes baby-sit.

The setting is Williamsburg, a town small enough to make fling-hiding difficult. Nor do Daniel and Abbas make much effort to do so (except from the children): Both "marriages" are open, and Elena has put up with this sort of thing before. Abbas is rich, bisexual and so self-centered that his wife's chief concern is to keep his infatuations from threatening the family's stability. Her cynical wit helps her cope, while at the same time attracting the highly verbal Zack, who is such an avid reader of Victorian novels that he has worked his way through all the biggies and is now down to Mrs. Gaskell. While Daniel and Abbas are satisfying each other's physical urges, Elena and Zack are becoming platonic friends.

All this takes place during the run-up to the Iraq war, when being an Iranian in America is problematic. Bram, who is best known for the excellent novel "Father of Frankenstein," which fathered the movie "Gods and Monsters," is good at conveying the Rohanis' vulnerability when the FBI comes calling after Abbas's politician brother arrives from Tehran for a visit. The author is even better at psychiatrist-patient scenes, especially those in which Zack must keep his atheism in check while hearing out a fundamentalist Christian, as well as a mock session with the Rohanis' daughter in which she spins some telling fantasies.

But this talkiness is also the book's weakness. The characters spend so much time probing, dissecting, analyzing and being sophisticated about the adulterous goings-on that there's not much for the reader to do but sit there and be spoon-fed. At each stage of Daniel's feeling for Abbas -- animal passion, love, disenchantment, resurgent love -- the principals assemble for long, dialectical examinations of just where things stand at the moment, and at times "Exiles in America" reads more like a play than a novel.

Bram (or his omniscient narrator) also likes to plunk down critical and psychological judgments. One of Zack and Daniel's mutual interests is silent movies, and they go back and forth on who was greater, Charlie Chaplin or Buster Keaton. But, we are told, "only dilettantes claim Keaton is greater." Later, we find out that Brahms's First Piano Concerto is "loud, tragic, glorious bombast," that "mental illness can be an extreme logic," that "there are few acts more awkward than pulling on your undershorts after failed sex," and that when sex is not an issue, sleeping is "a lovely act to share with another person." Even readers who agree with all these insights (and here I'd better admit to being a Keatonite) might wonder if there weren't more artful ways to get them across.

Near the end, Bram addresses readers directly, asking, "Are you always honest with yourself and your spouse or partner or lover?" among other questions. This stepping out of the frame is a fault for which Henry James scolded Anthony Trollope, one of the biggest of all Victorian biggies, and it's jarring to find yourself interrogated in a book where so much has been explained to you. But then Bram springs another surprise, a final, enigmatic e-mail from one of the characters, and it's refreshing to come upon a communication in which what's left unsaid probably outweighs what's spelled out. The predicaments Bram has set up for his characters are interesting -- sometimes compelling -- but his over-explaining left this reader feeling a bit sidelined.

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