Katharine Weber’s “Still Life With Monkey” is a beautifully wrought paean of praise for the ordinary pleasures taken for granted by the able-bodied. In precise and often luminous prose, with intelligence and tenderness, Weber’s latest novel examines the question of what makes a life worth living. The answer the book offers is its only disappointment, but a profound one.
The protagonist is Duncan Wheeler, a man nearing his 40s. Duncan has recently survived a catastrophic car crash that left him permanently paralyzed. On paper, he would appear to be better situated than most to adjust to his new condition. He has money. He has Laura, his smart and generous problem-solving wife. His job at a prestigious architectural firm is one he can continue, with modifications, to do. “A lucky cripple. Duncan had learned to despise that word, lucky.”
But the veneer of his success has long covered his dissatisfactions. As an architect, he learned early that his creative vision would be sacrificed to the realities of the business world. His still-enviable marriage has been damaged by the couple’s inability to conceive a child. Duncan has compensated for these disappointments by taking pleasure in the quotidian activities of cooking and gardening, two areas in which he excels. When these things are no longer possible, he struggles to cope. Laura struggles with his struggles to cope.
The book, which is intimately focused on the Wheeler household, opens with the arrival of Ottoline, a capuchin monkey trained to serve as Duncan’s hands. Ottoline is Laura’s idea, an idea Duncan initially resists. “He wanted to prove her wrong,” Weber writes, “punish her for having a shred of optimism about the unmitigated disaster of his situation, drag her down into his despair.” Instead, he finds himself captivated. Ottoline is a complex creature with a large personality; she brings a bright presence to the sad household. She quickly finds a place in Duncan’s heart denied to the five human personal care assistants Laura has hired. Surely, some of Duncan’s affection is explained by Ottoline’s lack of awareness of him as disabled in any way. None of the other helpers come into the vivid focus that Weber gives Ottoline.
A fourth major character in the book is Duncan’s twin brother, Gordon. Eight minutes older, Duncan has always thought of himself as the original, his brother as the copy. This configuration encompasses a sense of the slight degradation of any copy. Something in Gordon’s makeup has rendered him awkward to the point of pathology in human interaction. He’s lived a radically circumscribed life, attending a different school than Duncan, living at home until his mother’s death, working in the back of a local bookstore. His interactions with Laura are difficult for both of them. And yet Gordon possesses the contentment that has always eluded Duncan. His life, which looks so small from the outside, contains everything he wants. His only sadness is that Duncan is sad.
These humans are the book’s viewpoint characters, their histories artfully and compellingly conveyed along with the shared and the private impact of Duncan’s accident on each of them. But another human hovers wordlessly over the story. Todd Walker was Duncan’s architectural protege at the firm, a man too young yet to see his own unoriginality, but filled with enthusiasms and plans. The two men were on their way back from a work site when the crash occurred. Duncan was behind the wheel. When Duncan was paralyzed, Todd was killed.
The book is somewhat mysterious on the subject of Duncan’s fondness for Todd. But the important fact is the one Duncan expresses quite plainly: “Todd Walker will always be dead. I will always be the reason.”
I love books in which I learn things. Along with the usual pleasures of a story with distinct and memorable characters, I learned from “Still Life With Monkey” a few of the techniques used in art restoration. I learned about a rare form of Song dynasty pottery known as Ru ware. I learned something of the social lives of capuchin monkeys. I learned that Edith Wharton undertook considerable machinations to transfer some of her wealth to Henry James, while being careful that he should never find out she’d done so. A comparable effort on Laura’s part to return to Duncan the gift of his early creative power goes horribly awry.
This excellent novel is, however, all but spoiled by its ending. I counted on the imagination and intelligence shown in the rest of the book to carry through. Instead, we’re given the same appalling conclusion we see so often in tales of disability. The end of Duncan’s story line is a terrible letdown. The conclusion of Laura’s story is unpersuasive. Only Ottoline has an ending I can embrace. As she begins the book, so does she close it, with a bright energy and the continual mystery of her complex and curious mind.
Karen Joy Fowler’s most recent novel is “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.”
By Katharine Weber
Paul Dry. 275 pp. $16.95
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