The title here is your first warning: Oxford Dictionaries describes ‘double bind’ as “[a] situation in which a person is confronted with two irreconcilable demands or a choice between two undesirable courses of action.” Think on that, then brace yourself as you open the cover (or hit ‘play’ to allow narrator Susan Denaker to lull you into false complacency): between these pages, you’ll lose all control of what’s real and what’s not.
To tell you too much would be such an injustice, so if you’re already a Chris Bohjalian groupie (my favorite hapa Armenian American writer and general go-to-when-I-need-a-good-story-stuck-in-the-ears), just read it without any further preamble, because that’s always the best way to discover new stories. If this is your first Bohjalian from his 16-thus-far (#17 coming in July), congratulations for picking a mind-blowing powerhouse, so go start already.
If you’re still with me, let’s start with Bohjalian’s opening “Author’s Note” in which he carefully lays out what’s true: the executive director of a Vermont homeless shelter shared with Bohjalian a box of “remarkable” black-and-white photographs taken by a once homeless man, Bob “Soupy” Campbell; both were “mystified” how such an obviously accomplished artist could go from capturing images of celebrities and newsmakers of the 1950s and 1960s to becoming homeless in Vermont. “We tend to stigmatize the homeless and blame them for their plight,” Bohjalian writes. “We are oblivious to the fact that most had lives as serious as our own before everything fell apart.” In deference to Campbell, Bohjalian includes some of his luminous photos throughout this book. He adds, “Obviously, Bobbie Crocker, the homeless photographer in this novel, is fictitious.”
The “Prologue” then begins with grave violence: “Laurel Estabrook was nearly raped the fall of her sophomore year in college.” She was 19, biking on a dirt road not too far from school when two men in a van attacked her. In the midst of this description – unrelenting in careful details – of the most pivotal moment of Laurel’s young life, Bohjalian slips in two unexpected phrases you should not miss on page 3: “George Wilson (shot Jay Gatsby as he floated aimlessly in his swimming pool)” and “…even if she hadn’t grown up in West Egg …” Hold on to those clues …
By prologue’s end, the narrative intentions are set: At 26, Laurel works at a Vermont homeless shelter and is in possession of a box of photographs belonging to 82-year-old Bobbie Crocker, a former shelter resident who has just passed away. The photos fall into three categories: instantly recognizable famous people and places; a girl on a bike on an all-too-familiar dirt road; and scenes from the country club of Laurel’s childhood “once owned by a bootlegger named Gatsby” that include photos of society doyenne Pamela Buchanan Marshfield as a girl with an anonymous young boy about whose identity Laurel instantly “has a hunch.” Laurel must decipher the multi-layered story literally laid out before her, realizing she is somehow implicated.
Puzzled yet? [And no, you don’t need to be a Gatsby aficionado, just know the basic story of invented identities and unattainability. Literary heresy aside, Gatsby bores me, except when Elevator Repair Service performs it as their phenomenal eight-hour stage spectacle renamed Gatz.] Just beware: Don’t get too presumptuous too quickly – even as Bohjalian reveals clues in plain sight, full understanding probably won’t come until you go back and reread. Reality has rarely been so clearly, cleverly camouflaged.