THIS NOVEL IS LIKE quicksand. Beneath the surface it seethes, inhales and sucks the reader down. Fictional life with Scott Spencer is no relaxation, no refuge from the city or the suburbs. His is an all-encompassing, near-suffocating world that forces involvement and is unwilling to relinquish us to mere daily life.
Endless Love is the tale of one man's obsession with one woman. Sound familiar? But this is love as few would recognize it, a love so total, so warping in fact that it effectively removes the sufferer from society. David Axelrod, the child of drably radical parents, is a vulnerable Chicago youth of 17 when he meets Jade Butterfield. Her family, enlightened, unaware that maturity is not automatic, is enraptured with the '60s. Seventeen-year-old sexual passion is not frowned on. Instead, in the interests of freedom and adequate sleep, David and Jade are allowed to move a double bed into her room-- "a used bed from the Salvation Army which we sprayed for bugs and drenched in Chanel No. 5."
Eventually, Jade's liberal daddy Hugh has second thoughts and exiles David for 30 days. In despair, to make the Butterfields notice him, take him back, need him, David-- with fantasies of rescuing them-- sets their house on fire. "I still believe the statement that gives the truest sense of my state of mind that night is that I started the fire so the Butterfields would have to leave their house and confront me." Don't be alarmed lest an unthinking reviewer has spoiled the plot. All this happens within the first three pages of this long, complicated novel.
Anyway, the action doesn't matter. David matters. The striking of the match banishes normalcy for the Butterfields and for David. The family scatters; the older son becomes dominated by his hatred of David; Jade's parents divorce and Jade herself vanishes from David's life. David realizes the extent of his desolation: "I was, I knew then, a member of a vast network of condemned men and women; romance had taken a wrong turn within me and led into mayhem." The reader lives through his emotional maelstroms in a way that is shocking in its intimacy. David's psyche, his heart, his soul hold no secrets. Washing dishes, he longs for his love letters that his parents, with the best intentions have hidden: "Standing before the sink in a cloud of steam, I thought only of those letters, picturing the ink upon the page, recalling the endearments. Those letters were all that I had that wasn't invisible . . . I tried to turn my thoughts toward my own helplessness, my inability to get on with life, to begin again. But the truth was that I had no will and no intention to begin life again. All I wanted was what I'd already had. That exultation, that love. It was my one real home; I was a visitor everywhere else." We are left pleading for mercy, longing for some shred of reticence. But there is none. Having set foot on the sand, there is no holding back.
The boundaries between sanity and madness are blurred in Endless Love. Having confessed to arson, David serves time in a fancy psychiatric hospital and later is confined in a state mental hospital and finally in a prison, but it all has little effect on the tenor of his life. His existence flares only twice more: first in his unrelenting search for the scattered Butterfields, despite the terms of his probation that forbid any contact-- he locates Ann, the mother, in Manhattan and breaks parole to go to see her. And second in his near orgiastic reunion with Jade on the day of her father's cremation. We do not know if David is insane. His intricate self-analysis lays out every layer of his obsession with Jade. She herself is almost a cypher and seems too matter-of-fact to inspire such devotion. We are not really concerned with her. It is as if we were looking through the lens of a high-powered microscope into David's very being. A startling sense meets the eye; luxuriant, full of astonishing detail, but verging on the grotespue, a little ominous.
Scott Spencer has chosen to write of worlds slightly off-balance, with colors too bright and characters contorted by their affections or twists of fate. His first novel, Last Night at the Brain Thieves' Ball, was a warming-up exercise for the imagination, a mannered tale of a secret think-tank out to manipulate and subjugate the world to eternal materialism. The warping factor in Preservation Hall was less visionary; the fanaticism of a political cadre. There is something comic about its bungling operation, but nonetheless, its influence turns a romantic retreat in Maine into a nightmare. In that book another complex and optimistic relationship bends and buckles under unnatural stress. Spencer succeeds in making us care more for David Axelrod, but he too is condemned. His love for Jade is heroic. He will sacrifice anything-- family, future, his very sanity-- to his love for Jade, and yet this passion engenders only moments of glory and a lifetime of emptiness and death-in-life. Spencer's heroes carry a heavy curse.
The women, on the other hand, seem in a strange reversal to survive the ravages of love that have traditionally been fatal to them. David's mother Rose, unhappy in marriage, bereft of her son, widowed, still struggles on, survives to take David back. Ann, Jade's mother, and a crucial protagonist in their saga, also loses her husband, first to divorce and then to death, but she continues on and visits David in prison while touring as the author of a successful book. Jade herself is given tangible life after love. But for David's father Arthur there is a heart attack, for Hugh death in the path of a speeding taxi, and for David himself only life without a mainspring.
Spencer has enormous power as a writer. He takes no easy options. He details the endless nuances of human feeling with infinite care. His writing is fearless and at times overwhelming as he piles phrase on phrase: "If endless love was a dream, then it was a dream we all shared, even more than we all shared the dream of never dying or of traveling through time, and if anything set me apart it was not my impulses but my stubbornness, my willingness to take the dream past what had been agreed upon as the reasonable limits, to declare that this dream was not a feverish trick of the mind but was an actuality at least as real as that other, thinner, more unhappy illusion we call normal life." At other times his prose is spare and splendid: "Our bodies were fluttering. Birds caught in a cold chimney." This gift for the sudden, inescapable image keeps the continuing soul-searching from drifting into hopeless abstraction. The emotional is intertwined with the physical, tears with anguish. David cries wrenchingly and often.
Is this novel enjoyable? Successful? The answer to the latter must be equivocal. Scott Spencer is becoming a writer of astonishing depth and power. Yet the canvas is too crowded, there is no room to breathe, no space between the reader and the protagonist. The reader cannot be force-fed like the pate-de-fois goose. He needs more time and space to appreciate the riches offered. "Enjoyable?" Too soft a word for Scott Spencer. The sensations aroused by reading this novel are more akin to the legendary thrill of riding some fearsome, swooping, sickening rollercoaster-- "What the hell am I doing here?" one moment, and the next a short walk to join the line for another ride. The speed, the fear, the anticipation sharpen the pleasure of walking quietly on solid ground. And that is the joy of Endless Love.