It is a cruel fact that children enter the urgent drama of adolescence around the same time their parents plunge into the tedious wild of middle age. For the younger generation, everything is new: angst, ambivalence, reckless sexual desire. For the older set, it’s much the same, only without the endless future. It’s a wonder parents and their teenagers even manage to talk.
This is the territory of Rick Moody’s “The Ice Storm” and television’s beloved “My So-Called Life.” It’s also where Rachel Basch’s “The Listener” lies, in that moment when the child — a genderqueer college freshman who goes alternately by the names Noah and Leah — is speaking to the putative adult — a stodgy school psychologist by the name of Malcolm Dowd . Or rather, that’s where this rather innocent novel starts.
“The Listener” is set in a snowy college town in Maine. In the opening passage, Leah arrives for an appointment with Malcolm only to rip off her shirt and wig midway through their session, revealing that she is actually Noah, a boy who’d sought therapy the previous fall. Malcolm, chagrined that he was fooled, falls to his knees and embraces the child.
If this sounds operatic, Basch reminds us that it’s Noah’s telling. And he’s an adolescent prone to grand gestures. As the voice switches over to Malcolm, there is a drier, wryer tone. He describes his own aging as “approaching the edge of something, like moving about in the pitch black when you knew you were in the vicinity of a flight of stairs.” But even Malcolm, in this region, is a font of emotion.
There are a few random figures in this novel who do little to advance the plot. Malcolm’s sleazy business partner, for instance, is a bit of a stock character whose story never comes to much. But the central characters carry “The Listener.” Generations twist and turn, each exposing the others’ fallacies and lies. The children are lost, yes. And in the case of Malcolm’s daughters, somewhat surly and spoiled. But it’s in the interactions between them — impassioned youth and the weary-yet-hopeful older folk — that Basch makes magic.
For this is a fairy tale of twinning. There are two distinct storylines: Noah’s and Malcolm’s. There are two ambivalent lesbians, two musicians, two cuckolded spouses, two Leahs, two gender-different young adults. Everyone in this novel is trying to carve out meaning and an identity. The characters are paired and compared and refracted until each makes peace.
And that’s the beauty of this book: One person’s pain must inform the other. Father teaches daughter. Son teaches mother. The world teaches everyone to listen and be still.
“There’s a tendency to look at what happens in our lives as a deviation from what was supposed to happen,” Malcolm tells his younger daughter. “As if life is scripted, and unwanted events are an aberration. But, what befalls us is our life.”
Ann Bauer is the author, most recently, of the novel “Forgiveness 4 You.”
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By Rachel Basch
Pegasus. 220 pp. $24.95