The Loneliest Number, a Review of Julie Hilden’s "3"
Occasionally, a book comes along that makes me want to call up my old first grade teacher, Mrs. Lillian Gang, and thank her for teaching me to read. "3" is such a book. Not a great book, ultimately, but a very, very good one. Hilden can’t be compared to Jean Rhys or Marguerite Duras just yet, but she certainly blows away such contemporary "masters" as Jonathan Franzen and David Foster Wallace who attempt to take on the complexities of the world without understanding even the simplest of problems, such as how to write a book without resorting to RAD (Reader Assured Destruction), pounding us poor semi-literate slobs to insensibility with page after page after page of bloated prose till we beg them to appear on Oprah and explain just what the hell they are writing about. Of course they refuse our requests. After all, such masters owe nothing to the masses, most of whom would rather be watching reality TV anyway.
I didn’t expect to like "3." If I’m going to read fiction I usually prefer to learn some stuff about economics, history, or kazoos. Pynchon, Burroughs, Gaddis, Acker etc, whose books are chock full of useful information, and exciting prose.
But here’s where Julie Hilden proved to me that the death of narrative fiction has been greatly exaggerated. Hilden had me hooked from the first sentence and taught me that once you strip even my favorite post modern masters of the erudite monkeyshines I so enjoy, they’re writing about the same thing as Hilden: humans and the madness that twists them when they pursue what humans are most inclined to pursue, the things that make us human by the very act of pursuing them: love, work, pleasure.
While we are supposed to have jobs, and families, we are not really supposed to find adult love and adult work (art?) much less adult pleasure. The pursuit of such forbidden fruits lures us to madness, obsession, causes us to inflict pain on the beloved as well as ourselves, and distorts the work, especially creative work, with the poison of celebrity and the nastiness that ensues when two lovers are celebrated for working in the same milieu.
Heavy stuff Julie Hilden has tackled here, with powerful, original prose and for the most part, quick, no-nonsense narration, which goes something like this:
Maya and Ilan meet in college, each bearing deep psychological wounds. Ilan’s mother died when was a child. Maya’s parents divorced and went on to establish families of beautiful blonde achievers. Both Mom and Pop decided they could get along very well indeed without the brooding, red-haired Maya, ghost of their failed marriage.
But the nineteen-year-old loners, Ilan and Maya find a separate peace in a love affair that early on hints at predilections for mutual pain and obsessive desires. They burn each other’s arms with cigarettes at a party their sophomore year. Unfortunately, the co-eds who witness their secret rite do not understand the complexities beneath the surface action and
Not to worry. Ilan’s father owns and edits an up and coming celebrity/literary magazine. He finds them an apartment , takes them on as interns, then full-time staff writers. Problem is, Ilan’s not much of a word-smith, and as in college, Maya works for the two of them, writing both her articles and his, while Ilan focuses on perverting their relationship with sexcapades involving third party women whom he cultivates according to their physical similarities to Maya.
An agreement is reached, an ad placed in the Voice classifieds for a red head of Maya’s description looking for a night of fun with a fun couple. Ilan interviews the women in bars and cafes while Maya lays low in the background, pretending to read or write, but carefully scrutinizing the applicants. Both she and Ilan must approve of the candidate before the threesome can begin.
These threesomes form the basis of their subsequent marriage, for before they tied the knot, Maya caught Ilan with another woman. He can’t stop, and he won’t stop seeing other women, for his vision is to include Maya in his quests for what? Pleasure? Fulfillment? and, so as not to lose him, she agrees to the closed system of this "open marriage."
These aren’t the adolescent flirtations of "Friends" or the fatuous trysts of "Sex in the City" we’re dealing with here, but a complex relationship between two very complex and confused human beings. Maya finds sex with her own carefully chosen doppelgangers is kind of exciting, especially since the third parties are told to leave and never return part of the agreement at the end of the night and morning brings a kind of togetherness between her and Ilan, alone in bed, albeit each time a step closer to the a place his S&M fantasies will bring them, a place Maya prefers not to go.
She really just wants a "normal" life with Ilan, a baby, her career etc. But this fantasy of normality is no more attainable than true bliss in their increasingly sado-masochistic menage-a-trois.
Meanwhile: work. Maya’s becoming a famous journalist to the extent that’s possible acclaimed for he insightful celebrity interviews. She has a knack for busting the truth out of their sealed lives and writing it up as interesting copy, becoming a celebrity herself in the process. What does this mean to her, this probing of false lives? Is Maya even a real journalist? After all, getting a celebrity to admit to being gay/pregnant/addicted to drugs etc is hardly a job for Robert Fisk. What is the connection between her unmasking of actors and actresses’ false lives and the celebrity-sized drama of her own marriage?
Well, she must see something because she tells Ilan it’s over. She wants normalcy, a child, monogamy. He asks her for just one more tryst. Just one, she agrees, just one more woman. But Ilan commits suicide slits his wrists one afternoon in the apartment before this final threesome can take place.
This is where "3" loses something along with Ilan, becomes a very good novel rather than the excellent book it has been thus far. Had Hilden ended with Ilan’s suicide, she would have left the reader and Maya with many unanswered, perhaps unanswerable questions. This would not have been a bad thing, for these questions are only unanswerable on the surface. Hilden has already provided enough information about both Ilan and Maya in the first 150 pages of this 220-page book to allow the reader and Maya to reflect. To make sense of it all to the extent that "it all" can ever make sense in literature or life. I would not have felt "cheated," for in the brilliant text she had thus far provided, the pieces are there, even if the "whole" puzzle seems impossible to "solve." In fact, Hilden’s attempt, in the last third of the book, to solve the unsolvable puzzle of the narrative and ultimately "redeem" Maya barter’s some of "3"s originality for that fiction peddled by writing workshops throughout the land that a narrative must be "wrapped up," it’s pieces put in place, else the reader find himself/herself "wanting more."
Ilan gave his life, Maya her soul. What more does any reader have the right to ask for?
Well, before Ilan took himself out of the picture, he left Maya with his promised "final woman," Olivia, who looks more like Maya, and behaves more like Ilan, than any of the others. Maya had no say in Olivia; Ilan chose her on his own, his final "gift."
Maya and Olivia are intensely attracted to each other. Maya breaks her and Ilan’s "agreement" by letting Olivia spend the night, then another, then another, until Olivia, a photographer, breaks her own lease and moves into the apartment.
Love. Domestic peace. Companionship. Creative work. Followed by jealousy Olivia is not pleased with Maya’s lingering love for her late husband; Maya suffocates under Olivia’s obsessive love and domestic scrutiny and so on.
I’m not going to "ruin" the story by describing how Maya works it all out, but she does work it out, and I wish she didn’t. True, her relationship with her look-a-like Olivia offers interesting contrasts and cinematic images of a love affair with oneself, but we’ve already seen this during the days of her and Ilan’s threesomes.
Had Olivia not arrived on the scene, many things might not have made sense to Maya, at first. But she would have figured out what could have been figured out, in time, as would the reader. After all, many if not most human relationships, particularly if they involve love, sex and marriage, are ultimately beyond comprehension. There is a point at which we don’t understand passions grown in the mulch of deep childhood wounds. In fact, that’s the key ingredient to tragedy. We begin things with the best intentions, they spin out of control, we crash, and there’s nothing more to explain. All that’s left for us is the record of events leading up to the crash, which we can try to understand as best as we can. No real explanations or conclusions. No redemption. Girl meets boy, girl and boy go to bizarre extremes of their particular obsessions, girl loses boy. Girl tries to figure out, and write about, what the hell happened.
As it is, Hilden’s attempt to put things in order, which might stem from the author’s fear, not unfounded, that today’s readers the few of us left so dependent upon an orderly fictional universe in which things happen for a reason, which is revealed through a conclusion/redemption in the narrative, just wouldn’t "get it" if "things fell apart" and we were left with nothing but the history, the narrative up to the point of the tragic end to ponder.
Hilden wrote an excellent book up to page 150; after that, "3" steps down from excellence and becomes "merely" very good till the wrap up on the final page. Whether you chose to read the excellent first two thirds, or continue through the very good last third, "3" is a must read. It is a work of art, and as such, an indictment against all that’s tawdry and false in human relationships and a paen to all that’s beautiful and true. Its mere presence in the world is a weapon against all the garbage we are bombarded with in books, movies, television about "true love" and childish visions of Romance. Hilden writes daringly, for the most part, about who we really are.
Definitely worth a phonecall or even an email of thanks to Mrs. Gang.
ADAM ENGEL can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.