September 17, 2009

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Blame, by Michelle Huneven (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009)
By Lisa Parsons lparsons@hippopress.com

Happily for fans, Michelle Huneven’s third novel has much in common with her first two, Round Rock (1997) and Jamesland (2003). (After Jamesland, I said I hoped not to have to wait six years for the next one. Oh, well.)

Like the others, Blame has characters who are alcoholics, some of whom attend AA, some of whom do therapy, who live with thorny questions of right and wrong and what really matters amidst the ordinariness of their days.

In Blame, as in Jamesland (and as in life?), what actually happened isn’t the most important thing; what people think happened and how they respond is.

And Blame is less about how people treat each other than about what they do with themselves — in particular, what one woman does with herself.

The crux of the plot is that an alcoholic woman goes to jail for the deaths of two people who were walking down her driveway as she arrived home one drunken night, having been driving with a suspended license, and, as the jacket copy puts it, she “will spend the rest of her life … trying to atone for this unpardonable act.”

The “blame” of the title is not so much blame assigned as blame assumed and accepted.

The philosophical dilemmas at the heart of Blame make it appealing, worthwhile, unusual. And combined with Huneven’s writing style, they make it a hard-to-put-down book.

But I take issue with that jacket copy. First off, it doesn’t exactly feel like the protagonist spends the rest of her life trying to atone. She spends the rest of her life on a path set by the crucial event and her reactions to it. A few nuggets are thrown in to tell us she is all atonement, but they don’t feel well woven in. I can’t decide whether that’s a problem with the novel or just its promotion, but I know the jacket copy is problematic in other ways. To say that “talent explodes” in this “spellbinding novel” is to invoke images of Dan Brown; Blame is actually soft-spoken. And the jacket teases: “Then…another unimaginable piece of information turns up. For the reader, it is an electrifying moment, a joyous, fall-off-the-couch-with-surprise moment.” No. It’s a good plot twist but it’s not fall-off-the-couch — if nothing else, the writing is too understated for that. In fact Blame left me feeling settled, and calm, a little sad at times but with hope, like I’m not the only person to face such conundrums, and like sometimes you have to just let things be. Which is what a Michelle Huneven novel — I think it’s safe to say after three of them — does, and it’s why I like them.

Teasers aside, the book itself isn’t perfect. It is never explained believably why the deceased’s family would want the jailbird deeply in their lives, which they do, and for a relationship supposedly so close, there’s too little said about it.

And for such a big, weighty concept as blame, the book is kind of thin — airy, ethereal. But then again life can be like that. There’s a curious thing about Blame and its siblings: I never want to put the book down when I’m reading, but it evaporates soon after I stop. The particulars of plot and characters fizzle away. But then Huneven is writing about the long arc of people’s lives. (Say hello to Lewis Fletcher from Round Rock; then he was a grad student, now he’s a professor in a new setting. No one in Blame knows him from before.)

A Huneven novel is above all a place to acknowledge life’s curious mix of mundane details and too many half-intimate characters and irretrievable loss and going forward anyway and profound purpose-of-life what-have-I-done questions.

When I try to review Blame I waver. It’s forgettable; no, it’s sublime. This doesn’t make sense; yes it does, it just isn’t spelled out. And so on.

Which is exactly the kind of rock-and-a-hard-place its characters are caught in: I dreamed it; no, it really happened; I saw her; no, it wasn’t her; I love him; no, it isn’t love; it’s my fault; no, it’s not.

And Huneven’s talent in taking on these dilemmas and airing out these parts of people’s lives make Blame at least a B+. —Lisa Parsons