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By Ethan Hauser. Bloomsbury USA. 400 pages. $26
Thursday, July 11, 2013
Ethan Hauser’s debut novel, “The Measures Between Us,” explores the emotional space between human intimacy and detachment, the riddle of what brings humans together and what keeps them apart. He describes with depth and narrative subtlety how love not only unites people but also separates them.
This excellent novel reminds us on many levels of another important debut novel, Carson McCullers’ “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter.” At the end of her work, McCullers describes Biff Brannon, one of a network of characters, as suspended between two realities, radiance and darkness, “between bitter irony and faith.”
Hauser creates an equally complex and poignant web of characters who, while living in and around Boston, struggle with love and human isolation. The use of the word “measures” in the title suggests the key ambiguity this novel observes. Measures may be actions taken but also are demarcations, ways to calculate and define distance and substance.
The novel begins with Cynthia Pareto and her boyfriend Jack at a country carnival, and then through a well-constructed sequence of chapters, incorporates the stories of others, including Cynthia’s parents, Mary and Vincent, the latter a high school woodworking teacher, as they confront the reality of her chronic and dangerous depression.
Henry Wheeling, Vincent’s former student and now postdoc in psychology at Boston University, provides advice. He and his wife, Lucinda, pregnant with their first child, have their own secrets.
Another key character is Sam, whom Cynthia used to baby sit in high school and after college. His wife has committed suicide and he is dealing with his son, Brandon, who has autism. Known and unknown connections unfold among these and other characters.
Hauser studied in the graduate creative writing program at what is now Hollins University and earned a master’s degree in 1993. An accomplished short story writer, he now works as an editor at The New York Times. He employs here the concentrated power of the short story and journalism for the purposes of a longer narrative. Each chapter functions as a beautifully realized depiction of character and situation, and could easily stand alone. The conclusion of one chapter, however, aptly sets into motion the next set of events so that the novel seamlessly weaves character and narrative structure.
The examination of character and interiority, as in McCullers, lies at the heart of this novel. Point of view deftly shifts as needed to reveal the nuances of human emotion. Hauser’s language and imagery are perfectly suited to the fragile adjustments humans construct to life.
Cynthia serves as a unifying character in the novel, but two prevailing metaphors provide additional continuity. The occurrence of unprecedented flooding due ostensibly to climate change or perhaps something more apocalyptic and what might be defined as a “helicopter view of life” anchor the narrative.
Jack, as part of his university internship, transcribes Henry Wheeling’s interviews with local inhabitants who are dealing with the floods. Hauser intersperses the transcriptions throughout the novel. The study focuses on why people refuse to leave their homes when confronted with such threat and the emotional impact of misfortune.
As one interviewee says, suggesting the situation is almost biblical, “there’s no intent behind it, even if it feels like sometimes there is.” These questions inform the other stories in the novel.
Cynthia reveals the other metaphor through her obsessions. She becomes fascinated with the model town fabricated by the university research team Jack shows her. It allows the researchers to create and observe various weather situations and the potential impact of flooding on the area. She also becomes enthralled with a local reclusive multimillionaire, an MIT graduate who made a fortune selling a method of storing information on microchips. Her interest centers on watching him come and go in his private helicopter.
Without saying it directly, she leads the reader to the human desire for and inability ultimately to explain the great whys of life. A sentence near the end of the novel states, “A helicopter would know there was a connection.” What view, what perspective would provide an adequate explanation for the floods that alter life so momentously?
By the end of the novel, Hauser has brought us back to the word “measures,” but we now have greater insight to its implications.
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