Talking In Bed

Robert Spillman reviews "Talking In Bed" by Antonya Nelson.

Published May 8, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

In her three collections of short stories, Antonya Nelson carefully picked at the interworkings of domestic relationships like an obsessive worrying a bothersome scab, teasing and prying until all the raw flesh was exposed. But could she maintain such intense scrutiny for an entire novel? Absolutely. In "Talking In Bed," Nelson works her way into the invisible interstitial matter that bonds couples and manages to spin a whole expansive tale in this tenuous region.

Under the microscope are Rachel and Evan Cole, married 16 years with two sons. The novel opens with Evan, a perfectionistic psychologist, smothering his father -- a mean old bastard who has been dying forever -- at a Chicago hospital. In the same ward he meets Paddy, a regular, blue-collar kind of guy, who is genuinely grieving over the death of his own father. After the mercy killing, Evan latches onto Paddy as his one true friend and in the midst of a deep existential crisis feels compelled to leave Rachel for a squalid apartment, baffling everyone involved, including himself.

What follows are messy self-examinations by one and all. Paddy, a happy-go-lucky guy before he met brooding Evan, is suddenly unsatisfied with his simple, dull Mormon wife. Rachel, a successful lawyer and content mother, empathizes with Evan's crippling ennui and, while she fights off depression with alcohol, finds herself strangely attracted to the simple handsome stranger that Evan has latched onto. But mostly Evan and Rachel think of each other, wondering what has held them together, the layers of needs and habits that silently accrued over 16 years: "She now felt his substance in her body like a forgotten organ, the tumorlike presence of her conscience. It was heavy and joyless, like a documentary film, like a news bulletin from a war zone, like reality."

Like an archeologist going through tons of rubble with a toothbrush then reconstructing the ruins, Nelson has a patient, meticulous eye and her observations steadily build into an impressive whole.

By Robert Spillman

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