MAGNETIC FIELD(S) begins with a robbery, but Ron Loewinsohn's first novel is not a conventional mystery, and the first sentence overwhelms all detachment. "Killing the animals was the hard part," thinks Albert Boone, a housebreaker who proceeds to tell us exactly how it feels to bash a dog's head with a tire iron. "It actually made a dent in the head and felt something, at first, like hitting a rolled-up rug, except that now there was this dog lying there with its different legs crumpled under it or sticking out in a way that nothing that was alive would lie that way."
That grisly description puts us inside Albert's skin, and the next lines put us inside his mind. "Killing the animals was the hard part because . . . they reminded him of him. . . . They moved like him, they wanted things, they wanted, and they were scared and furious."
Albert identifies himself with the animals; he identifies with all his victims. Similar acts of imaginative projection --and projection can be sympathetic as well as savage-- give this novel its energy and create its magnetic field. Field(s), I should say, since Loewinsohn's novel has overlapping patterns rather than a plot, and the title is a metaphor for the forces which shape those patterns. The principal characters, all men, are subject to the gravitational pull--and so is the reader.
"You can't know what a magnetic field is like unless you're inside it," says one of the characters, a composer, speaking for his creator. Loewinsohn, the author of five books of poetry, has designed both the sentences and the structure of this novel to "bring the audience into the field itself." While the conventional mystery turns the reader into a detective, this psychological mystery turns its reader into an accomplice.
Magnetic Field(s) has three sections. In the first, we are compelled to imagine Albert Boone's life, just as he imagines the lives of his victims. Loewinsohn's prose, so offhand and matter-of fact, precisely evokes Albert's excitement and fear, the zone of his sweat and the "anger and pleasure skittering around on the skin of his shoulders and upper arms."
Above all, it evokes the "feeling of difference," the strangeness of being an intruder in rooms where the most commonplace objects suggest the dense, intimate reality of other lives. A lamp in the shape of a goose, a spoon that says NEW JERSEY, a plastic syrup bottle in the shape of a bear--these things are so saturated with use, so familiar to their owners, so taken for granted, that Albert steals them as well as the "money things." Because he feels "real and solid" in the spaces inhabited by others, he is tempted to open their refrigerators, drink their beer, watch their TV's. "All he really wanted to do was be there in a place where people had their lives . . . How could he explain--if he was caught--what he was doing feeling real in someone else's house?"
The theme is repeated, with variations, in the second section when David Lyman, a composer and one of Albert's victims, takes his family from San Francisco to a college town in the Hudson Vallley. There David has rented a house for the summer in order to complete a musical "environment" called Les Champs Magn,etiques. About the previous tenants of the house, David knows only that the father was a professor, the mother a tennis player, and the son, a prodigy, was killed in an accident. He knows none of the details, "and it was of course the details that would bring them to life. Now they were just 'the Mortimers'. . . ."
As he prowls through the strange house and the nearby woods, recording sounds to use in his composition, David begins to fill in those details. His interest in the Mortimers is precisely identical to Albert's curiosity about his victims; like Albert, David is furnishing the empty spaces of his own life. The tragic and yet eerily serene story which emerges is inspired by the material objects which the Mortimers have left behind--the boy's poems, a model railroad, a "room" in the woods--and is, in turn, an inspiration for David's music.
David is both subtler and more patient than Albert, and his invention of the Mortimers is complete. The process calls into play not only his powers of deduction but also his deepest sympathies and most primal fears, especially the fear of loss. The Mortimers soon become as real to David--and to the reader--as David's own curiously remote wife and son.
His projection is a creative act, then, but at the same time it is an evasion. In the final section of the novel, when David tries to imagine the particulars of a friend's disruptive love affair, the process by which fantasy displaces reality--by which fantasy becomes reality--is made explicit.
By emphasizing the themes and metaphors of Magnetic Field(s), I'm afraid that I have made it sound disagreeably abstruse. Loewinsohn does press some of his analogies until they are quite flat; and at times he seems to impose a pattern upon events, a very different thing from allowing events to occur and discovering a pattern within them.
But the intellectual intricacy of this novel is one of its attractions. Exact in its observations, rich in coincidence, intriguing in structure, Magnetic Field(s) is faithful to the details and language of ordinary life. As objects reappear, and as phrases, sentences, and sometimes whole paragraphs are repeated, they acquire what can only be described as a magnetic charge. Assured and accessible, this novel requires of its readers exactly what it requires of its characters--imaginative participation in other lives.