Inside by Alix Ohlin
Knopf – June 2012
“Wow” is an understatement.
Alix Ohlin has been weaving fantastic prose for quite some time. Somehow, I’ve missed her. Knopf is publishing Inside, and Vintage is doing the collection, Signs and Wonders. Both will hit the shelves on 6-5-12. This is an aggressive approach, and I wasn’t convinced it would work. I’m here to report that this writer is more than capable of being in two places at once.
Where do you start? It doesn’t matter. Anywhere is fine. You won’t be able to stop once you do. I whipped through Signs & Wonders, but I’m sorry I didn’t read this novel first because it is so thrillingly modern.
Have you ever seen a movie, or television show where you think you know the character? Personally? As if the show were made just for you? You become so magnetized to a character that you can’t stop thinking about them? Ohlin delivers three such people in this novel.
Anne, I would wander the streets of Manhattan to find you. This little vixen shows up as a teenager at her shrink’s office with a “delicate” problem, and she is mostly pitiful. Then Ohlin blasts forward, (like that scene on the ‘Lost’ where Jack and Kate meet at the airport, and agree, “we have to go back”) to Anne as an adult, and the results are so rewarding, specifically brilliant, that I couldn’t read fast enough. Anne reminded me of Maria Bello, a medium-sized wiry “old soul” trapped in a runway body. Having moved to New York City to become an actress, (I assumed she moved there to become anyone, get lost, disappear) she maintains an overachiever attitude as she makes her way out to Hollywood. She has one specific incident in her past that made her zig when she should have zagged. Almost accidentally, Anne takes in a stranger which turns out to be the little white pebble on the path that starts her adult life. It goes like this:
When she left the apartment, she forgot about the girl completely–her name, her predicament, even her shit in the lobby. It wasn’t that she was naive or trusting; only that nothing was as real to her as herself.
Like all good writers, even brilliant ones, there are moments when characters reveal a little bit about themselves to the reader, but in this case, also to themselves. Grace is the shrink who doesn’t help Anne; a woman I didn’t actually like, because she was too real, self-reflective, too caring, too much of a sponge. Grace does something selfless too, but pays a heavy price. Grace and her “ward” find their way through the story, and are guided by Ohlin’s steady grip, as the story shifts around in time.
We meet Tug, the man Grace “saves”, who is doomed, or so we think, at least Grace thinks he’s reachable, in a physical and emotional sense. Grace and Anne share a kind of emotional retardation. They can’t see past others to see themselves until it’s too late, and it’s as if they only exist because they are backdrafting off another person. It isn’t like wet toilet paper, they actually become their own person, but only after climbing over someone else. It just looks like they were helping them.
Just when you think a thread of this story is complete, you turn the page and discover another angle. By the time we get to Hollywood with Anne, where the book hits it stride, I began comparing this novel to the brilliant Eat the Document. When I finished that book, I was begging for another hundred pages. With Inside, and Anne, I would have gone on to War & Peace lengths just to see how Anne turned nothing into something.
The fragmented format of this story, tripping back and forth evenly through time, is this novel’s greatest strength. Hearing moments, important and vital, from each character’s life in airtight sections reveals their flaws and makes them all the more important. Grace wouldn’t have held water for the entire story, but her phobias are reflected in Tug, her “ward”. Anne would not have been nearly as powerful if she had been left a cliché, or a wobbly teenager. The man Grace eventually engages with isn’t someone I suspected would be her match, and the reversal that comes into Anne’s life is equally unexpected.
Without giving too much away here, I don’t want to sound like I’m selling Alix Ohlin soap on a rope. At thirty thousand feet, it seems to me that true American fiction is missing these real, sharp and poignant stories about simple lives and is what we’re lacking in our ADD society.Perhaps it is only about the pace of a novel, the patience, or something else. It’s magnetizing and refreshing to see the internal workings of literary characters revealed so poignantly. This is a quiet book, and I envy anyone reading it for the first time.