(Ann Arbor, MI: Dzanc Books, 2015)
In his book Synchronicity (1952), Carl Jung tells the story of a young woman patient whose psychological inaccessibility proved to be both a frustration and challenge. Despite Jung’s best therapeutic efforts, this patient always knew best: she was highly educated, unflappably rational, and refused to appreciate “reality” as anything but a highly predictable, organized system. During an appointment, Jung gazed uninterested out the window as the young woman recounted a dream she had had during which a stranger handed her a golden scarab. As she spoke, Jung heard a faint tapping at the window. There, he found a large scarabaeid beetle butting at the windowpane “in the obvious effort to get into the dark room.” Jung opened the window, plucked the golden beetle from the air, and handed it to his startled patient. This experience, he says, “punctured the desired hole in her rationalism and broke the ice of her intellectual resistance.”
Jung’s theory of synchronicity holds that events are “meaningful coincidences” if they occur without a causal relationship yet maintain the appearance of meaningful relation.” In other words, events may be connected by causality or by meaning; however, events connected by meaning are not necessarily explainable by causality. If we are to accept synchronicity as a probable dynamic of reality, we, like Jung’s patient, must allow punctures in our preferred rationalism and quit over-intellectualizing our daily experiences. Fortunately, Carmiel Banasky’s debut novel, The Suicide of Claire Bishop, provides ample opportunity to meet precisely this challenge.
The book begins in 1959. Claire Bishop is sitting for her portrait, commissioned by her unlikable husband, in their indulgent Manhattan apartment. Mysterious and subtly flirtatious, the artist, Nicolette, has instructed Claire not to look at the portrait until it is finished. Claire has been drinking too much and, as fate would have it, finds herself momentarily alone with the portrait just as the alcohol loosens her remaining inhibitions. She sneaks a quick peek and is shocked: Here is Claire, at various ages and locations, though unmistakably herself, committing suicide again and again. Nicolette frantically tries to explain: “I took this notion of your death—your suicide—and I gave it to the work. So it can’t happen. Do you see?”
Nicolette has blundered. Since childhood, Claire has believed she is genetically predisposed to madness. She does not flinch at the prospect of psychological deterioration, however. She has come to sanctify it as her earned legacy. If the portrait does truly have the power to change her future, Claire fears, it must also have command over her past. In an effort to reclaim authority of her own destiny, Claire chooses the path of least resistance: She allows her life to unravel, passively, painfully. Nicolette, for her part, disappears entirely from Claire’s life. Her impact, and that of her painting, however, endures.
Soon after Claire’s first step toward the deep end, the novel shifts to a second narrative. Here, in 2004, we meet West, a young man struggling to make sense of a life come unscrewed by schizophrenia. He is searching fruitlessly for his lost love – an artist named Nicolette. West’s Nicolette is without an origin story. He explains,
I don’t even know how old she is, but when I met her she was twenty-six and acted as if she’d lived a century — she was wise enough. I think she let herself fall in love with me because she knew how I was and maybe she felt like she owed something to the world. She wanted to save me.
West attempts to track her down by searching for her artwork and, eventually, discovers the painting of Claire Bishop’s suicide in a gallery. He becomes convinced that this painting from the 1950s is his ex-girlfriend’s creation and constructs an increasingly elaborate delusion involving time-travel, the local Hasidic community, art theft, and a commitment to finding the falling woman.
True, West is not a reliable narrator. He actively, if not aggressively, pursues his own version of utter demise. He hands over his last doses of anti-psychotics to a couple of estranged losers from high school and follows the fraying thread of his delusions, leaving his family fearful and heartbroken. But it’s so easy to believe in his version of Nicolette, or at least eagerly anticipate a gorgeous opening of reality where, somehow, the “meaningful coincidences” piling up between West and Claire become causal. Perhaps that is the greatest achievement of Banasky’s novel: These events have always been connected by causality. The “meaningful coincidences” have all been misinterpreted.
West and Claire finally meet at the very end of the book. It’s a gorgeous, profound ending – one that continues to haunt long after slipping the book back onto the shelf. Claire, semi-lucid, speaks to West from her hospital bed:
“I never lost anything. Was that cheating? It feels like cheating.” Her breath is low, barely filling her lungs. She sighs. And her hospital gown, and her old lady skin, and her aches and pains, they seem to sigh off her, too. […] “Don’t you worry,” she whispers. “I’ve been making this decision every day of my life.”
This moment between two strangers, connected only superficially by a painting and a name – Nicolette – is significant. West and Claire have lived much of their lives haunted by the past, pursued by and pursuing what has been lost, or stolen from them. Her message to West is clear: Their lives, as confused and erratic as they appear, are constructed deliberately, by choice, by willful attachment to what has already disappeared. Claire’s lesson is reminiscent of a bit of dialogue between Alice and the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass and perhaps it’s unsurprising that Jung was drawn to these same lines as he pursued his theory of synchronicity: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.”
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Lisa Grgas is the Assistant Poetry Editor of The Literary Review. Her work has appeared in Fratcal, Web Del Sol, and elsewhere. She also reviews poetry for Tin House Magazine in Portland, Oregon.