THERE IS, IN WARSAW a building on Oklnik Street, -- the Ostrogski Palace. it is situated in one of the few parts of the city not destroyed in the war, and thus from the outside it stands out as a relic of old Warsaw. Inside, it has curtains and elegant chandeliers. In this building is housed the Frederic Chopin Society -- a society dedicated to preserving the spirit of one man unto eternity. What kinds of people does society so honor? Can one set out to become so honored, and not lead a tortured life?
Oliver Thompson, the central figure in Allen Wheelis' new novel, The Scheme of Things , is a writer obsessed with something lasting, a narrative work so powerful and deep that the world will one day want to preserve it and transmit it through a permanent institution like the Chopin Society in Warsaw.
The subject of Thompson's life's project, as it is described, is elusive and complex. Thompson has a vision that humans can be happy only by living within some overarching, unquestioned system of belief that provides complete answers to the mystery of death. Such a system he calls a "scheme of things"; it is a way of trying to cope with reality, which is to say, with "the way things are." These two complementary phrases serve as the titles to Wheelis' actual novel and Thompson's imaginary one.
Thompson -- and perhaps Wheelis as well -- considers that from our need to deny death comes all the meaning which we give to life; that from striving for this impossible goal springs our troubled identity as human beings. How can we live constantly under the shadow of death? How can we find significance in ephemeral things? By what rules can we run our lives? What meanings can we grasp and believe in? How are we to live?
This is not a new theme for Wheelis by any means. His previous book, On Not Knowing How to Live is a short but powerful collection of essays and fragmentary stories which details the perplexity of a psychiatrist torn by an inner conflict between what he sees as base, earthly, flesh-oriented desire -- which he calls "grail-hunger" -- and spiritual goals. Wheelis, a psychiatrist himself, appears to view his grail-hunger as merely a part of some mysterious plan beyond our ken, the grandiose scheme of an impersonal force he calls "spirit," a word that embodies the purposive appearance of the laws of nature, especially as they pertain to living beings who reproduce and thus pass the spark of spirit ever upwards, to unknown and ever-evolving recipients. The Scheme of Things takes over where On Not Knowing How to Live left off.
We learn that Oliver Thompson (like Wheelis) has written, in his youth, a book about the superiority of superiority of spiritual love to carnal love. His continued efforts to create another, lasting work are interrupted by the death of his sister and his becoming the guardian of her 5-year-old daughter Abby. At that point Oliver, previously a solitary, self-absorbed individual, finds himself drawn into a surprisingly deep relationship with the child, who calls him Daddy. He finds himself caring not only about her but about her concerns, particularly her pets -- fish, a hamster, and her golden retriever Barney.
The story spans more than a decade, tracing Oliver's changing relationship with Abby, his confusing entanglements with his lover Carlotta, and his growing sense of how vulnerable he is to loss. Abby eventually goes away to college and becomes mysteriously hardened; Carlotta leaves in frustration over being half-loved, and finally Barney dies. Oliver suffers deeply at the death of this pet he and Abby have both loved. As the book progresses, one senses in Oliver an increasingly desperate search for redemption, for salvation, for something holy. Rescue and redemption become a central theme. But for Thompson, his own redemption comes late, perhaps to late.
Wheelis shows considerable skill in developing his ideas through Oliver's character. His talent as a writer, as well as a philosopher of sorts, is further evident in his vivid and evocative scenes of nature. He has an unusual sensitivity to light and shadow, which he uses to convey the ambiance of the San Francisco area where the novel is set. Wheelis also makes effective use of symbolism, presenting symbols for the audience to perceive in their own personal ways. At a critical moment in the story, for instance, a spring that has run through Oliver's garden for years suddenly dries up, an event which, in the context of the story, invites interpretation. A few pages later, the drying-up is explained as the result of a nearby excavation does not detract from the event's deeper meaning. Wheelis seems to feel that symbols are all around us, ours for the reading, if we wish to look for them.
Thompson grapples with his own conscience, his guilt, his grief over the loss of Barney, his need for love in The Scheme of Things , he slowly loses all interest in finishing his grand opus The Way Things Are , and his need for attachment to another living being leads him to acquiring a puppy named Niels, an unpleasant animal who grows only nastier as he becomes a full-gronw dog. The contrast between Niels and Barney could not be greater, and it is one of the most poignant aspects of the book that in the end, Thompson resigns himself to being the keeper of this ill-tempered dog, partly out of devotion, partly as penance for his having been so self-absorbed in the years when he could have devoted his attention to Carlotta, to Barney, to Abby. It is a kind of rebirth through resignation, a sad message indeed.
In the end the book presents a grim picture of life, stark and almost hopeless, relieved only by the hope for a sort of redemption, thorugh caring, through giving, through devotion to other beings. If this seems almost too obvious a message on first sight, it is arrived at so painfully by Oliver that it is like a powerful ray of light illuminating his whole world. One accepts the message even if it seems obvious.