Friday, July 12, 1996

Talking in Bed, by Antonya Nelson

A review of Talking in Bed, by Antonya Nelson
Published July 12th, 1996, in The Minnesota Daily’s A&E Magazine

Familiar Talk
Nelson’s First Novel is Mired in Stereotypes

By Antonya Nelson
Houghton Mifflin, $22.95

In 1990, Antonya Nelson’s first book, The Expendables, won the Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction. Since then she’s published two more collections, and now with Talking in Bed she’s finally published a novel. Unfortunately, like O’Connor—a master of the short story—Nelson proves to be not much of a novelist.

Talking in Bed begins is a hospital where two men, Evan and Paddy, meet after their respective fathers’ deaths. The two are polar opposites—Evan is a psychiatrist, and Paddy is a roofer—but their common experience draws them together into a strange relationship.

Evan’s intellect attracts Paddy, and after a while Paddy becomes something of an innocent ideal for Evan. The two gravitate toward each other, exchanging secrets (among other things) in an attempt to get closer to the truth of their mutual appeal.

After a few weeks of friendship, it’s obvious that they both want to escape their own lives in exchange for the other’s. Evan’s sick of his rational, controlled existence, and Paddy yearns for the larger world that he imagines Evan to inhabit. Although Nelson plays this out thoroughly, delving deeply into each man’s psyche, it’s really nothing more than a drawn-out “grass is greener” scenario.

Add a few alienated wives to this mixture and you’ve got all the makings of a movie of the week. Paddy’s ingenuous charm also works on Rachel, Evan’s wife, and when Evan leaves her, Paddy moves right in to take his place. What follows is a sordid—and somewhat banal—battle of wills and personalities over who Rachel will choose.

Here the novel shifts ostensibly away from Evan and Paddy and onto Rachel. Instead of watching the two men battle it out in the flesh, the reader must now watch it happen within Rachel. As she sleeps with Paddy, she misses her intellectual familiarity with Evan, but it’s precisely that cerebral aspect of love that she’s trying to escape.

The question looms: Which will Rachel choose, the mind or the body? It’s that simple. Or is it? Nelson tries, with some success, to examine every aspect of this dilemma, but ultimately she can’t raise this novel above its essentially one-question premise.

Nelson’s worst sin, though, is not the lame plot, but rather her oversimplification of character. Instead of drawing real characters, she presents the reader with archetypes: the neurotic, overly cerebral Jew, the confused ex-Catholic, the lunk-headed WASP, and the idiotic Mormon. Nelson thinks these facile delineations inherently entail a heightened conflict and that she can simply create stereotypes and watch the ensuing confusion. But these divisions don’t create tension; they simply offend. And who really cares if Rachel chooses one caricature over another?

Talking in Bed isn’t a total waste, though. It presents a broad view of modern social entanglements, leaving little out of the picture. Nelson employs the homeless, the mentally ill, racial minorities, and social deviants to add a more complicated sense of reality to her novel. But like much of her characterization, much of this inclusion is either one dimensional or cursory. It’s ironic; in trying to portray a confused and complicated—and specific—world, Nelson has created little more than platitudes and generalizations.

—David Wiley

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