Isaac is the perfect lover: warm, generous, devoted, passionate, supportive. Nora is his ultimate challenge: a woman in whom, as one friend puts it, the contradictory impulses of Virginia Woolf and Florence Nightingale make war. Nora may be capable of great tenderness -- through much of Brian Morton's new novel, "A Window Across the River," she cares for a beloved aunt who disintegrates under the ravages of cancer -- but she's also a writer, of a particular and troublesome kind. Isaac, a photographer, gets caught up in the heroism of his subjects: "He was drawn to the moments when people showed their strength," Nora observes. But Nora, often against her will, excavates just the opposite when writing short stories that are clearly based on the people she knows best. "When she wrote," Nora thinks of herself, "she became a cannibal, feeding off the lives of acquaintances, friends and loved ones ... she gravitated to their secrets and their frailties."
Morton, who beguiled critics with his 1998 novel "Starting Out in the Evening," is a peculiar case as contemporary novelists go. He's intrigued by the delicate layers of human emotion and character, but unlike most of the other writers who share that interest, he doesn't approach them romantically, in gusts of quasi-poetic lyricism, or sidewise, in allusive, spare prose. He doesn't write the kind of sentences that people who praise sentences go for. His style is straightforward, almost workaday, and he's not afraid to tell rather than show. But the dirty secret of both the flowery and the stoic approaches to writing about feelings is that they both make good masks for sentimentality. The terse, glancing, chiseled mode in particular offers writers a way to indulge in bathos without seeming to.
For Morton, who's tougher than that, the point isn't to marvel over the fact that people feel grief or despair or longing, but to see what they do about it. His novels proceed almost like equations. We have Isaac's column of secrets and desires, and we have Nora's, and "A Window Across the River" soon settles into alternating back and forth as it adds to each one. Isaac and Nora do and don't understand each other in key ways, and what drives the book is the sense that eventually they will come to a reckoning, a point at which each of them will have to make a choice. There's a moral dimension to Morton's fiction that's lacking in the usual contemporary novel of sensibility. It gives his books a backbone, and a suspense, you more often find in those 19th century novels, in which characters struggle to reconcile their conscience with their desires.
"A Window Across the River" (Nora lives on the western edge of Manhattan, and Isaac in New Jersey, so they're separated by the Hudson) is also about art, and the price exacted from artists and the people around them in its creation. It's a topic that invites preening melodrama, as Morton well knows, and so he takes pains to demonstrate that Nora is not just another overgrown infant excusing callous behavior by claiming she's got a note from the Muse. He uses the subplot about Billie, Nora's dying aunt, to prove this, and at times this utilitarian aspect of Billie's story floats a bit too close to the surface. However, having established Nora's essential goodness, Morton poses a question: Is it wrong for her to form the close relationships (especially romantic bonds with men) that her nature inclines her to, if she knows that eventually, in her art, she will betray her loved ones' trust? And is it also wrong for her to give up her writing, "a kind of nourishment unlike any other ... the best way she had ever found to express her fascination with life, her quarrels with life," in order to protect those close to her? Either way, she denies a fundamental part of herself.
Meanwhile, can Isaac's admiration for Nora's "purity" of commitment and respect for the "demon" that's caused her so much trouble survive when the "heartless" eye of her writing turns, inevitably, to him? Add to that his own mourning for the artistic inspiration he abandoned in taking a comfortable job as a photo editor, and the stakes ratchet a notch higher. At any point that you think you grasp the problem Morton lays out for his characters, the author is likely to add another twist, revealing an aspect of someone's personality that further complicates the matter. Some say that love has become too easy, in this era of no-fault divorce and serial monogamy, to make a good subject for novels anymore, but off in his own corner of the literary kingdom, Brian Morton is quietly proving them wrong.