Blame, Michelle Huneven

(New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Strauss and Giroux), ISBN 978-0-374-11430-5, hbk 304pp • $25.00

Michelle Huneven’s third novel is a compelling tale of guilt and redemption that traverses lightly over a complex moral landscape. Patsy BlameMacLemoore, a 29 year old history professor who works hard and plays even harder, wakes up one morning in jail, accused of running down a mother and daughter in her driveway. Already disqualified, it seems that her wild life has finally caught up with her. Blame is literary fiction so the tone is quiet, restrained. There are no major, emotional dramatic scenes. In the court-room, in prison, on release, with her family, with the victim’s tearless husband; not even when Patsy finds out that her guilt and remorse are misplaced, is the emotion allowed to reach above a whisper. The restrained narration suits the straight trajectory of Patsy’s journey from self-centred alcoholism to self-aware sobriety.

It’s hard to work out why Huneven begins her tale with the detailed study of Joey Hawthorne, who is, after all, a minor character. One summer’s night in July 1980, as her mother approaches death from cancer, Joey runs into Patsy. Near the end of Blame, some two decades on from the opening scene, it’s Joey who imparts crucial, earth-shattering information that changes the moral dimension of Patsy’s life. These two moments aside, it’s hard to see why Huneven insists on giving Joey such priority. The opening chapter fools the reader into thinking that this will be a tale of forbidden love, tangled relationships; that we will follow Joey’s bildungsroman. But it’s Patsy’s life and relationships that take precedence. It’s her moral, psychological and intellectual growth that we follow as she attempts to remake her life. It might be that, through the Joey/Patsy pairing, Huneven is exploring the idea that our lives follow intricate pathways, intertwining and connecting with people who can make or unmake our inner lives. Perhaps, although it’s not entirely clear.

Free of quotation marks and littered with dashes in place of commas, the sparse punctuation reflects the spare narration. Yet, rather than ease the reading flow and reader’s understanding, it lends a further air of confusion to the plot. At times, it’s hard to work out when Patsy is speaking aloud or to herself. In her essay in the Wall Street Journal (25 October, 2008) Lionel Shriver complained about this new turn in popular literature: 

We don’t hear any shouting; no one screams. Reading heated dialogue without quotes is like watching chase scenes in “The Bourne Supremacy” with the sound off. The refusal to make a firm distinction between speech and interior reflection can also evoke a hermetic worldview. …Yet when the exterior is put on a par with the interior, everything becomes interior. What is conveyed is an insidious solipsism. When thinking, speaking and describing all blend together, the textual tone levels to a drone. The drama seems to be melting.

The main fault with Blame, is that there’s too much interiority and little emotional development. Patsy is narcissistic not selfless. Even after a two-year forced separation she remains self-obsessed, inward-looking. She complains of her recent widowed father’s swift remarriage while rejoicing that it also brings release from familial responsibility:

He was so lost. Didn’t know where the sheets were kept, or the toilet paper. But mostly, Patsy added, I’m grateful I don’t have to take care of him.  (p. 133)

She resents providing shelter to homeless alcoholics seeking rehabilitation and sharing the family home with her fragile step-daughter-in-law.

For all the narrative confusion and stand-offish restraint, Huneven writes intelligently, using evocative description and painterly prose to instil emotional depth. For example, when Patsy leaves prison at the end of her two year sentence, the landscape imagery depicts the possibility of rebirth, renewal and a fresh start.

 Patsy had imagined the moment of her release as a big gust of wind, lifting her up and over the hurricane fence and toppling her into her new life. In fact, Sweeney drove her down to the gate, nobody was waiting. The sky above was a pure, clear blue, but at their feet, a fog-bank stretched to the horizon, its surface white and dimpled like a mattress or a frozen, wind-chopped ocean. It was easy to imagine that the world below was gone. (p. 87)

Of course, as Huneven makes clear, you can never wipe the slate clean, never rewrite history, never go back. In Blame, no one is blameless. Huneven deftly skirts around questions of moral responsibility, subtly apportioning blame hither and thither. Is Cal to blame for not sharing Patsy’s celebratory release? Is Brice to blame for avoiding responsibility? Is the judicial system to blame for its lack of forensic investigation? Are minor characters to blame for not sympathising, lacking integrity or sheer hypocrisy?

In forcing us to acknowledge uncomfortable truths, Huneven raises that most fundamental of questions: which one of us can throw that first stone?

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