Almost nothing happens in Liam’s Going, a novel by Michael Joyce now out in paperback six years after its hardcover release. Joyce has written a number of hypertext fictions, and there is something of the feel of hypertext to this novel too, both in its swirling temporality – it loops continually from the present to the recent and more distant past – and in its occasional lack of momentum.
Liam, the title character, is soon to begin his freshman year at a college in the lower Hudson Valley. Although the novel is named for him, he is a minor figure in it. The narrative point of view instead alternates between his parents, in succeeding chapters. Liam’s mother Cathleen, a poet, drives him to the campus from upstate New York, taking back roads and rural highways to stretch their journey to a couple of days. Liam’s father Noah, an attorney, stays behind and awaits Cathleen’s return. No catastrophe strikes Cathleen and Liam on the road. At home, Noah cuts the grass, visits an elderly client, and takes a boat out onto the placid surface of a lake. What conflict there is remains interior, in Cathleen’s and Noah’s memories, and in their visions of what lies ahead for them without their son. Both parents sense that with Liam’s going, they will move into a different, and perhaps diminished, stage of life.
Cathleen assures herself that she is happy, but that happiness is not unalloyed. She is no longer a prolific writer. Though she loves her husband, she dwells more during this journey on an affair she had two decades earlier with an orchard keeper she met downstate. The orchard keeper, Paul, loved the mountains and rivers amongst which he lived, and taught Cathleen their histories. Cathleen retells Paul’s stories to Liam, but we sense this is more for herself as she lingers on what was, than for her son.
In his wife’s absence, Noah also turns to his memories of another, a mysterious French woman he met decades earlier, before he himself went away to college. Noah and the French woman were not lovers, but their encounter opened him to the longings and complexities of adulthood. Both Noah and his wife teeter between regret and gratitude: regret for the passions they could have experienced, and gratitude for the security they have. Both also sense the fragility of their connection, and, recognizing that they are no longer young, of life itself.
A novel this meditative allows plenty of room for lyricism. There are lovely moments throughout. Noah, unable to reassure Liam when his son asks whether the soul survives death, feels that difficult questions slide past him “like ice floes on a dark sea.” Later, he remembers the French woman’s accent “coming and going in the night like the smell of pines.” Cathleen, faced with the noise and disorder of a teenage son in her house, “made silence for herself the way smooth water forms in the wake of a motorboat.”
But Joyce’s prose can turn awkward too. His missteps often occur in the chapters told from Cathleen’s point of view, perhaps because in them Joyce strains to filter his language through a poet’s more rarified consciousness. When Cathleen describes a mountain road as a “two lane strip of asphalt slathered like molasses on an upturned plum pudding,” when “a longing rose in her dimly like the feeling of ovulation, signaling a cyclic turn deep within,” or when she discovers that lust “could wake after sleeping twenty years and crawl up from whatever distant center to make thighs quiver,” I cannot be the only reader to wish for a little less.
But I don’t want to end this review on an ungenerous note. Cathleen tells Paul, after they make love for the first time, that “anthology” originally meant “a garland of flowers.” For that, I can forgive her a great deal. Cathleen and Noah, in turn, will forgive themselves the small failures and modest successes of their lives. In exploring their memories, Joyce has written a quiet testimony to the drama and beauty of ordinary existence.