Chic wants a “normal life”—or so he tells Diane when he begins to date her in 1950. If this seems like a timid aspiration, consider that Chic’s father froze to death behind the family barn and that Chic’s mother ran off with a close family friend, leaving him and his brother, Buddy, parentless. Looking around at all the other “normal” families in Peoria, IL, Chic must feel like a poor man looking inside a jewelry store, coveting the treasures inside. Within a year, Chic and Diane are married, the two of them only 18. A normal life seems within reach.
But then, at the wedding reception, Lijy—Buddy’s wife—gives Chic a backrub.
The chain reaction that this backrub starts—one that extends across half a century—is the subject of Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward, Ryan Bartelmay’s first novel. Chic spends years infatuated with Lijy, straining his marriage. But Buddy and Lijy’s marriage is in trouble, too. Buddy acts withdrawn and carries on angry conversations with the ghost of his father, leaving Lijy baffled. How can she connect with this man? She is an Indian in America, eyeballed suspiciously by the Midwesterners around her. When she has an anonymous affair that results in pregnancy, she forces Chic into claiming that he is the father—an “admission” that destroys any chance at a normal life.
As I watched this plot develop, I was frustrated and afraid that it would limit the sprawl of the novel. Up to that point, Bartelmay had seemed like a writer whose gift was in his nuanced portrait of small city life. It was such patient work. Why did melodrama have to intervene and shrink this work?
But I was wrong. This plot development happens roughly a third of the way through, but it’s not the novel’s focus. If anything, the novel’s focus is how little such melodrama matters in the shadow of the tragedy that occurs later in OTWWGT. And eventually, Chic’s attraction to Lijy—which was his original sin—has faded: “[Lijy] was not the beautiful woman Chic had lusted after but was now just a woman in her fifties wearing glasses.”
If I’m being vague about the plot and the novel’s “tragedies,” it’s because the book jacket copy says way too much, presenting something that happens on page 157 (of 353) as the novel’s inciting incident.
But perhaps that doesn’t matter, considering that Bartelmay’s is not a novel about plot, but a novel about… well, what? To say a novel is about its characters is sort of a cliché, and it seems too reductive a way to describe OTWWGT. Rarely have I felt the scope of a human life as I did while reading this book. Even though the novel’s focus on marriage and grief will probably earn it comparisons to Jonathan Franzen and maybe even one of various Richards (Ford, or Russo, or Yates), its scope recalls Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead—and, hell, even Charlie Kaufman’s film Syndecdoche, New York. Bartelmay writes in past tense, using an omniscient narrator; this most “novelistic” of approaches makes OTWWGT feel old-fashioned (there are even some whiffs of Wharton here). For some, this novel might be the literary fiction equivalent of comfort food.
But OTWWGT is one of the saddest books I’ve read in a long time—mostly because of Chic and Diane, the novel’s center. In the face of grief, Diane becomes imprisoned in her sadness, dependent on junk food (one rarely sees an obese character in a novel who isn’t a comic figure) and then, later, on bowling—or, rather, the meager connection to other human beings that joining a bowling league entails. Meanwhile, Chic starts to write poetry, which is exactly as awkward and sad as you would imagine. He wears a beret and writes haikus: “My life is nothing/ but a large hole in the ground/ I can’t get out of.” Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward is the title of his chapbook, stapled together and “on sale” at the local grocery store, until the manager demands that Chic get that junk away from the register. By the end of the novel, Diane has written Chic—now in his 50s—a letter: “The whole time I was eating those chocolate bars, you were snoring in the bed. I feel like that’s a metaphor for our lives. We were both doing our own thing.” It’s important to remember that Diane uses this “metaphor” not because she thinks it’s profound, but because she’s trying awkwardly to connect with Chic through his interest in poetry—trying awkwardly to connect with a man to whom she stopped paying attention long ago.
These are not “important” characters. They are of average intelligence and struggling to communicate with one another. But I respect the fact that, even though OTWWGT is ostensibly a “period” novel (taking place between 1950 and 1998), Bartelmay makes no attempt to tie these characters to the larger movements of history—to put their “small” struggles against a broader historical canvass in order to make the novel feel Important. (In fact, when JFK is assassinated, Chic barely notices.) These characters are not merely representations of their class; they do not represent anything other than themselves and the scope of their own lives, which, when you think about it, is pretty fucking important.
Book blurbs oftentimes feel vaguely like bullshit to me, but here, I think they’re instructive. The three novelists praising Bartelmay on the back cover are Sam Lipsyte, Ben Marcus, and Dinaw Mengestu—very dissimilar writers (united by Columbia University, where Bartelmay received his MFA) who, one can imagine, admire OTWWGT for very different reasons—which speaks, I think, to the novel’s success. Unfortunately, it will never sell as many copies as, say, Freedom, although it would probably appeal to many of the same readers—especially those who lament the lack of sensitivity Franzen shows his characters.
But this is the sort of book I crave—one that shocks me not with plot twists or literary gimmicks, but instead with the depth of its insight and the love it shows its characters. Everyone wants an audience for his/her life, no matter how insignificant that life may seem. Chic and Diane are no different. And as I read Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward—as Bartelmay made me consider my own life and the lives of the people around me—I felt like someone was out there paying close attention to me. I felt like I had an audience.