Louis Begley's new novel, "Shipwreck," begins when a stranger approaches a man in a bar and says, "Let me treat you to a whiskey. I don't like drinking alone. I bet you don't either." A few minutes later the stranger proclaims, "Listen. I will tell you a story I have never told before. If you hear me out, you will see why. I would have been a fool to tell it. With you, somehow I feel secure."
Despite such a clumsy opening, it's easy to feel secure with Begley after the numerous charms and unpredictable turns of "About Schmidt," which he wrote in 1996. Surely there's a perfectly good reason for this dusty stranger-in-a-bar conceit. Surely the man who's listening to the story will take shape or have some unexpected relationship to the stranger, instead of merely playing the part of the foil. It shouldn't take long until this first-person narrative feels like the most natural and obvious choice, instead of just keeping us frustratingly distanced from the story.
And so, with our disbelief suspended like a dragonfly in amber, we throw ourselves into the story of John North, a critically acclaimed novelist whose life seems to be going exceptionally well. His most recent novel has been widely praised by critics, awarded a prestigious literary prize, and optioned by a major studio for a handsome sum. His wife Lydia is successful, supportive, patient, and easy-going, and they have a lot of affection for each other. Despite all of his successes, though, North sometimes wonders if his writing is actually boring and ultimately worthless. In the thick of this haze of doubt, North finds himself in Paris, being interviewed by a doting young journalist named Léa who seems to want a little more from him than an innocent interview.
Soon, Léa's flowing blond hair and long legs beckon, and a whirlwind affair begins. Unfortunately, though, Léa seems to fall neatly into the category of Stereotypical Temptress. She's sexually insatiable, shallow, and slightly unstable. She's sleeping with a few other men, one of whom she refers to as her "great love," despite the fact that he's married. She's alternately manipulative and pushy, and she uses sex for leverage with North. Oddly, she seems to spend most of her time scheming over her career, having illicit sex with unavailable men, and creating imaginative yet disturbing oil paintings in her studio. On top of this heap of clichés, almost everything about Léa is unlikable: she mumbles excessively, she has no scruples, she's a social climber, she's a liar, and she's a gossip who irresponsibly brags to others about her affair with North.
In contrast, North's wife, Lydia, a respected doctor back in New York City, seems to represent all that is beautiful and good in the world. She's modest and secure and understanding. In every conversation between them, whether on the phone or in person, Lydia is kind and supportive and enthusiastic, downplaying her own successes while heaping praise onto North for his achievements. She's beautiful, her family is wealthy, the two of them never quarrel, and they have sex every night. No matter what kind of depravity North engages in with Léa, passages describing his interactions with his wife are uniformly positive and glow with an eerie tinge of fantasy: "Her nearness soothed me, it calmed my fears. I dared to begin to touch her. She smiled, a familiar sign that told me she knew and liked what I was doing. Soon she put down the book. Relieved beyond measure, joyous, I was all right. And what did I learn? That she gave herself without reserve, and that the act, as almost always, brought us great pleasure."
The cumulative effect of listening to the details of such an enormously successful pairing is similar to the effect, in everyday life, of hearing a couple talk about how exceptionally smooth and perfect and magical their relationship is. Eventually, you want a little peek behind the curtain at the occasional spat or tearful breakdown that surely must occur once or twice over the course of a decade, particularly when you happen to know that one or the other is having an affair. Even if North and his wife are ultimately doomed by the Waspy, repressed manner in which they interact, aside from the obvious existence of North's affair, hints at cracks in the foundation of his marriage are few and far between.
Meanwhile, North himself is haughty, sadistic, self-loathing, and egocentric to the point of tedium. While he approaches his wife with bland reverence, his feelings for Léa range from ambivalence to open hostility: "At that point, I was no longer certain of what I wanted more: to get her into bed and treat her like the little whore she was showing herself to be, or send her back to her studio with an envelope full of cash. Not for personal services but for the painting ... " Despite the mounting pressures of managing a dangerously needy lover, he never quite breaks down or demonstrates his vulnerability, beyond anxiety about the quality of his work or fear of getting caught. Not only don't we understand his relationship to his wife or Léa, we don't gather much about his relationship to his sister, his parents, his friends, or himself. If North is as alienated from the world as he appears, this aspect should reveal itself as a major theme, yet it remains unexplored.
Even with a gaggle of flat characters revolving around North's more fully-fleshed-out planet, the story could take shape, with certain images and ideas revealing themselves as central themes in North's struggle with himself. The name of the novel, after all, is "Shipwreck." Eventually, given North's major breach of trust, his marriage will splinter into a million pieces and his career will suffer. Clearly it's just a matter of time before everything shatters spectacularly and satisfyingly, right before our eyes.
Instead, despite a strong sense of foreboding, a myriad of omens, and a sinking feeling of impending doom, despite all the ways in which Léa could mess with North's good life, no premise takes shape, no open confrontations occur, the stakes never seem to get very high, and nothing is resolved. The man who listens to North's story remains in shadow, the purpose of North's affair and his whiskey-fueled narrative remain a mystery, and the only thing that reaches a peak is our impatience with such a sloppy tale from an author who's capable of much more inventive, imaginative work.