You never leave
Christopher Coake’s new novel, You Came Back, is disturbing.
That’s not to say it’s not a great novel—engaging, well-written, spare, real—but I found it difficult to read.
I’ll admit, part of that was me. I was reading the novel at the same time as I was working on a feature story about a 7-year-old boy who’s probably dying, so that imparted the story with things that other people may not bring to it. But that’s not the whole reason.
In fact, I think I found it disturbing because I could sense a whole thematic layer flowing beneath the one the author intended for casual readers. I couldn’t quite decide if it was there or if I was reading more into the novel than I should have. Confusing. And, assuming it was intentional, it puts this book on an entirely different plane—the kind that gets novels looked at for national awards.
OK. The story goes like this. The protagonist, Mark Fife, lost a wife and a life when his son died in an accident while he was parenting him (but not doing a very good job at it). Fife rebuilt his life, in some ways turned it around, and he was attempting to move on to a new phase by getting engaged. That’s when a stranger came into his life to say that Fife’s son’s ghost was haunting her home.
That’s the top layer of the novel. The story. It’s not what you’d call a fun story, but as a vehicle for getting to the real stuff, it works well. My bullshit detector went off as soon as the ghost was brought into the story, and for a bit, I was nervous Coake was wading into some horror genre. He wasn’t.
So the first thematic layer, the surface one, can be stated like this: Human beings have a difficult time dealing with death.
Coake handles the first thematic layer pretty impeccably. He looks at loss from about every possible angle. He brings in the rational mind, how the family looks at death, spiritual aspects (like can you think of a better reason to believe in God than you’ll get to see your loved ones again after you die?), aftermath, coping, each a facet of a 20-sided die called “grief.”
And then there’s this intriguing, confusing third layer. Essentially, it’s about dealing with addictions, and how we human beings are able to get addicted to ideas. Actually, addiction isn’t exactly the right word. Co-dependency? Sort of. It’s about how we are utterly unable to release concepts, things we think we understand, things that have no concreteness but only exist in our heads. Close-mindedness? Learning?
Well, I’m all in, so I’m going to go for it, in case I ever find myself explaining this review to Christopher Coake, who teaches writing up at the university.
Our hero, Fife, was unable to let go of his image of his father, of his image of his marriage, of his image of his ex-wife, of his beliefs in an afterlife or his lack of beliefs in an afterlife, in his surety of the life he was living before his son’s death, in his image of alcohol and drinking, in his image of his own character. I could go on for paragraphs about the things in this character’s life that defined him and disabled him from moving forward, and they were all in his head. He was dependent on inertia, addicted to ennui. He had all the motivation to progress, but he was unable to do so. Sort of like his ghostly son.
Basically, the reason I wasn’t sure that this was a deeper layer is because I recognized it as a willfully ignored, but obvious and fundamental aspect of many people I know, including myself.
And that’s what makes Coake’s novel all the more disturbing.