By Charles Dubow
Note: This review also appears over at I Read a Book Once. Go there. It's where all the cool kids hang out
Adultery is boring. I think one gets to a certain age and realizes that the entire idea of adultery as an offense is as predictable as it is hurtful. The entire affair tends to happen in a prescribed order of events and rarely strays from that order. As a narrative theme in literature, it's as dull as dishwater. As a subject for a novel, it is the proverbial dead horse. If an author chooses to go down this path, tread carefully lest thou fall victim to cliche.
That's not to say that authors should not explore the subject, but one has to be careful. There are only so many ways in which to make infidelity an interesting topic. As a backdrop for other narrative streams for instance or as a plot twist. But as the central focus of a novel? Egads! No! Adultery as the central action of a novel is nothing short of banal.
Which makes Charles Dubow's new novel Indiscretion somewhat of a surprise. Rather than try to reinvent the wheel, Indiscretion is banal to its very core. It revels in its banality. It glories in cliches and predictable outcomes: the carelessly ignored credit card bills, the thinly veiled web of lies. The banality of adultery is the part of the point. The predictable outcomes are as much part of the theme of the novel as the adulterous action. Indiscretion is banal by design but dull it is not.
Well played Mr. Dubow.
The novel explores the relationship between Harry and Maddie Winslow, a couple who have everything they could possibly want. Harry is a former college athlete and a successful novelist. Maddie is independently wealthy and fills her days learning the culinary arts and taking care of their nine-year old son. Together that have an apartment in Manhattan, a house the Hamptons and a jet set lifestyle that enables them to spend winters in Rome and weekends in Paris. In their spare time they enjoy long walks on the beach and taking Harry's Cessna for a spin. Life has been good to Harry and Maddie. As Jack Donaghy once put it, the Winslows are living in "the bubble." They are the 1%. We should all be so lucky.
But twenty years of (more or less) blissful 1%-style marriage is apparently not enough for Harry. Like everyman who has it all (including an airplane for Chrissake!), he doesn't. Enter Claire, stage right. Through a series of chance meetings over the course of a summer, Claire, a tried and true 99%-er, ingratiates herself with the Winslows and is instantly welcomed into Harry and Maddie's world of martinis, slacks and chèvre. Claire is dazzled by the unbuttoned wealth of old money and Harry's tractor beam personality. It's only a matter of time.
You've read this story before. Thousands of times. And don't expect any surprises. The reader is acutely aware of the direction of the narrative at every turn. And why shouldn't we be? Dubow is intelligent enough to understand that he is not going to surprise us when Harry and Claire invariably end up in bed together or how the affair progresses to its logical and painful end or the fallout and aftermath. The emotions involved are nothing new. It's all been said and done before. In books and movies and television. There's no reason to attempt to trick the readers when there are no tricks forthcoming.
But Dubow is a craftsman. Even though we all know where this novel is heading, his characterization and pacing make even the most telegraphed action interesting. Dubow stops to savor the moments, relish in the tension or passion or tragedy. In that respect, Indiscretion is a thorough examination not only of the adultery theme but of adultery itself. Dubow mulls over the age old adage: we don't really know what we want until we've already lost it. We are all inherently selfish. We can blame it on youth, middle-age, old age, sex or even tragedy but selfishness is the driving force in how we interact with the world.
But I don't want to imply that this novel is a cliche simply because it explores a cliche. Indiscretion is something more, something different from the piles of other novels on the subject. What sets this novel apart is the quality of the narration. Indiscretion is told from the perspective of Walter, a Manhattan lawyer and a man who is secretly and hopelessly in love with Maddie, which, by my count, makes four in this increasingly mis-named love triangle, though Walter remains a discreet outsider to the event unfolding though out the book, or so he says.
The lawyer in him gives the novel an objective, almost clinical tone. There is an emotionless quality to the narrative in its present tense and straightforward sentences. He neither vilified nor victimizes any of the players in the drama. He is reticent about laying blame on any particular person or event. Rather he lays out the narrative in such a way as there are no good guys or bad guys.
Indiscretion works as a novel about adultery precisely because it is banal. These sorts of stories rarely, if ever, culminate in boiled rabbits and attempted murder in the bathroom. The reality is far more protracted and mundane. It is a testament to Charles Dubow that he has written a decidedly readable novel on the subject of adultery in a manner that mirrors reality as opposed to a Hollywood fiction.