Frederick Reiken's 'Day for Night,' reviewed by Julie Orringer
DAY FOR NIGHT
By Frederick Reiken
Reagan Arthur. 326 pp. $24.99
Frederick Reiken's complicated and absorbing third novel, "Day for Night," opens as though it were a far more conventional book: On a trip to Florida in 1984, Beverly Rabinowitz, her boyfriend and his son go on a manatee-watching expedition; Tim Birdsey, their young guide, makes an unexpectedly deep connection with Beverly, and he brings her back to the river at night. The play of moonlight on the water makes her think of taking similar walks with her father, whom she hasn't seen since she was a child, and who is rumored to have died at the hands of Nazis in Lithuania in 1941.
After this setup, we expect the novel to follow Beverly home from Florida. We expect to learn more about David, her boyfriend, who is in remission from leukemia, and about his son, Jordan. We expect to learn about Beverly's own children -- two teenage girls who make a brief and compelling appearance by telephone in this first chapter -- and about Beverly's lost father.
And we do, eventually, though not at all in the ways we expect. The novel's second chapter leaves Beverly behind entirely. Instead, we find ourselves with Tim, the tour guide, who's on a plane with his talented band mate Dee. The two are en route to see her comatose younger brother in Utah. Within a few paragraphs, Reiken involves us entirely in this new narrative, making us wonder about the relationship between Tim and Dee, about what led to the motorcycle crash that landed Dee's brother in a coma and about the trauma Dee and her brother experienced when they were children and that threatens to reemerge now.
Perhaps because the movement from one character's story to another is so unusual and abrupt, the novelist feels compelled to tip his hand: Thinking about a song Dee wrote recently, Tim muses, "What it's about is the idea that we're much closer than we think to the random people we see on any given day, that everyone in this world carves out a little groove and that although you may think your world is large you rarely venture outside this groove."
It's an ordinary-enough idea, that our individual point of view is necessarily limited and that we're linked in unknowable ways to the people around us. But to a novelist, the idea poses a delicious challenge: Can a satisfying and cohesive narrative be constructed from many disparate points of view? Can the linkages between those separate stories be made to feel both organic and artfully shaped? How far afield can the individual stories run while remaining connected to the central narrative arc?
In the hands of a lesser writer, such a challenge might lead to disaster. But in "Day for Night," Reiken creates a fascinating, emotionally acute and, at times, mind-bogglingly complex story to which we surrender with delight. Using a different first-person point of view in every section, the novel shifts from Tim to an FBI agent investigating Katherine Clay Goldman, the mysterious and supernaturally elusive woman who sat next to Tim and Dee on the plane; then to Jennifer, Beverly's precocious teenage daughter; then to a puppeteer-turned-neuroscientist who was smitten with Goldman in San Francisco during the Summer of Love; and from there to a series of distinct and memorable characters, each with a fascinating tale and each with an essential role in the larger narrative. Like a master puppeteer himself, Reiken inhabits every one of these characters completely and invests each with an independent life.
As its title suggests, "Day for Night" is a novel concerned with paradoxes, and with the human ability to hold conflicting ideas in the mind simultaneously. In the film technique to which the title refers, a cinematographer achieves the appearance of nighttime by applying the appropriate filters to daytime footage. We never fully lose our awareness of the day-ness of the scene, but because many other clues suggest night, our minds participate in the illusion. In a similar way, Reiken explores our desire to make sense of what appears at first not to make sense, or to understand what seems at first unknowable; he also examines the ways in which sense falls short, the places where the inexplicable must remain unexplained. "The human brain must make a narrative," the neuroscientist tells us. "This I can say with certainty, and yet each narrative we choose will reach a point at which it no longer suffices."
As the novel draws toward its climax, it focuses more directly upon a question that contains many unknowables: What really happened to Beverly's father in 1941? Did he, in fact, perish at the hands of a Nazi death squad, or is he one of the two Jews rumored to have escaped? Those questions and the unexpected answers that emerge acknowledge the difficulty of knowing anything for certain, particularly when it comes to that horrific period of history during which so many stories were lost. But Reiken also suggests that through our complicated interconnectedness, we may be able to arrive at some clearer picture of the truth, and that while every narrative is, to some extent, a fantasy, a kind of wishful thinking, miracles of insight and connection do occur.