VINCE PASSARO’s latest novel, Mad grief, tells the story of two New Yorkers, aged 20 to 60. Their lives intertwine as do the members of lovers, and for this particular couple, sex is a constant. What is also a constant in George and Anna’s relationship is the World Trade Center: they meet on a “beach” created on the shores of Manhattan’s financial district when it was built in the 1970s. A photograph of the bicentennial celebration of July 4 on this artificial beach adorns the cover of Mad grief, the Twin Towers loom behind Americans with patriotic smiles.
After meeting, George and Anna take the subway north to Columbia University, where they are students. This journey takes them through Manhattan’s main axis, and the scene stretches as they awkwardly stand in the subway train. The book maintains that leisurely pace, more or less, as it gives an episodic account of George and Anna’s life. After Anna cheats on George with another couple, he breaks up with her and they go their separate ways, the tale following them in alternate sequence.
Sex is a common denominator in their various relationships, both heterosexual and homosexual. George is haunted by the psychological damage of an alcoholic and abusive mother: “Her sexuality. Sa. On the sofa, legs crossed, one tucked under her, the other with the shoe hanging down, the first drink of the evening with its crescent of lipstick under the rim. The cigarettes were similarly stained. Her dreams of a person-sized vagina are reminiscent of Philip Roth’s the breast; As in that 1972 novel, George’s sexual encounters often focus on isolated body parts: the legs of a male partner, the shiny hair of a female partner, and, of course, plenty of breasts.
In contrast, Anna’s sex life is more conceptual:
Mercilessly, she provided this tandem of brief pleasures while he was lying there, then, mercilessly, she fucked him – this phrase it’s not fun but meanness leafing through his mind. He felt so small, so insignificant, even though he was lying under her and was inside her. She pushed him roughly and thought: This is what it is, this is what it is to feel powerful, this is what it is to feel a man: what one needed, to experience the power. power was to find an advantage and use it, to abandon the idea of equality, or justice, or love.
Yet despite his new understanding of power, it remains elusive to him. As George’s marriage culminates in a pleasurable sexual relationship with his co-parent, Anna’s ends in a lingering fear of men and their potential violence. “You’re a jerk,” growls his future ex. “[H]We just looked at her with melted anger. He continued the gaze. The times in life when men scare you: this was one. Her power as a woman is limited. After meeting a man sniffing her on the subway, and after two cops talk to her like she’s a lost little girl, Anna thinks, “Look at me. […] and tell me this, you motherfuckers: AM I EVEN FUCKING? While the trauma of George’s childhood seems to have eased throughout his sexual relationship, Anna’s daily trauma, so common to women, continues.
Still, she continues her life in New York, which is no easy task even if you are a lawyer like Anna. And his life continues to parallel that of George. Both like to think about what it means to live in Manhattan. Here is George’s perspective:
The East Village had a red tint in the light – all brownstones and red bricks – while the Upper West Side was always gray, with a hint of lavender that turned to a purplish sky at night; where George lived now, further down after the town hall, there was hardly any light at all, just shards of cloth in the cracks among the two centuries of poverty and soot. The sunsets involved a loss of oozing light. The nights were dark.
Both went from college students to upper-class New Yorkers. Both have flirted with alternative life paths. Anna starts out as a nonprofit lawyer, while George becomes the co-founder of a successful coffee shop chain. One of his coffee sources in Mexico has ties to the EZLN (Zapatista Army for National Liberation), and George is half-aware of the importance of his ties to the Zapatistas. He shows slight sympathy for their anti-capitalist cause but not enough to abandon the American neoliberal enterprise. In what could be a romantic gesture, he “gives” money to the libertarian socialists.
George and Anna meet again at the turn of the 21st century and begin their childhood romance all over again. The moment is described in one of the book’s most poignant passages:
She had been alone for a long time, got used to it, attached herself to it, but it was an injury and she didn’t know who she would be without it. He was older and unattached; she was older and unattached. They wouldn’t do each other, this time, just a glance like two molecules in a heated system. They would stick. She knew it and feared it.
Yet it is this fear that gives midlife romance its poignant character. George and, more importantly, Anna, are very much at risk of starting a relationship at their age, when the loss can cause another injury, which may not heal this time around. Nevertheless, they dive right away, and soon Anna is playing foil to George again. Passaro skillfully uses the montage to move the reader through their renewed relationship with alacrity.
At this point, Anna gave up her career as a nonprofit lawyer and became a corporate lawyer, working for one of the financial firms headquartered in the WTC. As soon as readers come across this information, they are aware of what will happen to Anna. The book came out three days after the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks. Teju Cole’s narrator Open city (2011), another novel that takes place and draws its meaning from New York City, describes the event that turned the WTC into Ground Zero as “the day America’s ticker stopped.” The image suggests a middle-aged man whose experiences have caught up with him. In the nation’s case, this experience includes the economic and military horror it inflicted on much of the world, including southern Mexico where George has his business interests. Passaro, through George, does not deny this fact. When September 11 arrives and Anna arrives early to work on the North Tower, the editing slows down and everything begins to unfold slowly, with a sense of inevitability.
Anna dies. George is crying. Their lives had intertwined again, towards the end, and now they’re both over. Mad grief continues, but the novel fell into action, towards George’s decline and his inevitable death. In one scene, George and his now adult son, Nate, discuss the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio associated with the stock market. The metaphor is terribly appropriate. Things will continue to improve – until, against all logic, they don’t.
Ian Ross Singleton is the author of the novel Two big differences.