Next by James Hynes

February 22, 2011

Next has been, for me, the least satisfying reading experience of this year’s Tournament of Books. Partly this is because this is not, by any stretch, the least ambitious of the novels I have read. And it shouts out to one of my literary heroes with two introductory Woolf quotes. [edit: Next disappoints because it ultimately fails in its ambition though, at times, it seems like it might succeed.]

Hynes’s latest follows in the tradition of Mrs. Dalloway and Ulysses in that the novel relates the thoughts and actions of its protagonist through the course of a day. On this day, Kevin takes a trip from Ann Arbor, Michigan to Austin, Texas for a job interview. He begins the novel on the jet that takes him from a midwest of “native decency” to a much more ethnically diverse Texas.

Michigan Kev is distracted and concerned by terrorism. Only recently, a pale, green-eyed Islamic terrorist named Kevin McDonald has bombed the Buchanan Street subway station in Glasgow. The similarity of names and heritage unsettles Michigan Kev. He spends the flight mostly watching for missiles or recalling the television coverage of the latest attack. The woman next to him is reading The Joy Luck Club, a novel with which Kevin, a middle-aged editor, is not impressed. “What could Amy Tan tell this girl that she didn’t already know?” The woman is in her early to mid twenties and of Asian descent.

Kevin’s primary objective on this day is to dump his current thirty-something, girlfriend Stella for “Joy Luck” whose supple walk reminds him of a passionate fling he had in his relative youth. The interview is part of Kevin’s getaway plan. With a new, more lucrative job, he can flee south leaving Stella and the responsibilities of adulthood. He arrives early, with no baggage, so hopes to be able to make a move on Joy Luck before the interview. While he follows her around Austin, he reminisces about four (of many more) relationships he has had.

Stella is away on business and knows nothing of his interview. She loves him and, Kevin suspects, wants to have a baby with him. His previous girlfriend, Beth, left him for the express purpose of having a child with someone else. She thought he would make a poor father and mate. The available evidence indicates she was correct. The other missed opportunities are the sensual Lynda and “The Philosopher’s Daughter.” Lynda provided the most liberating and exciting sexual experiences of his life. The Philosopher’s Daughter is the exceedingly beautiful woman he thought he could well and truly love. She, however, believed Kevin was incapable of tenderness and passion.

Michigan Kev is in that cliched territory of middle life. He wants mostly to chase tail. Austin is less about money than romantic ennui. He grows considerably less sympathetic as it becomes clear he has the sensibilities of Roth’s Kepesh. He laments mostly that he is older, that he may have only one more opportunity to trade down. Unlike Kapesh, he does not have a comfortably prestigious job with which he can impress undergraduates, so he feels already in his fifties a diminishing sexual attractiveness. Much of the first two-thirds of the novel is taken up with memories like this one, which takes place in a supermarket. Kevin runs into Beth and her child while waiting for Stella. Kevin tells Beth the child looks “very relaxed”.

”She’s like her father that way.” She was looking at the child when she said this, but then she glanced at Kevin.

“Huh.” That name he did know: Noah. A junior professor in…something. A much younger guy than Kevin, younger even by a couple of years than Beth. And already the father of two children. Huh.

“Not to bring the conversation to a screeching halt or anything,” Beth said, smiling.

I mean, who’s the injured party here? Kevin wondered. As miserable as I may have made her, in the end she left me. I’m the one who got the push.

“How is he?” he said, slipping about on the high ground. “Noah,” he added. She wasn’t going to do that to him again.

“Busy,” said Beth, still watching him closely. He knew that look, and even now, when it shouldn’t matter anymore what she thought of him, he hated it and feared it. It was the look she gave him when she was measuring him against some private standard in her head. It was a look that already held the expectation that he would disappoint her. The problem was that he never knew what the standard was, and she wouldn’t tell him. It was a look that still made him angry – not the implied judgment itself, but the fact that he still let it get to him.

Hynes, unfortunately, does not write with the bravura of a Woolf or Roth. He does not bring anything new to the subject of horny old men. Kevin wanders Austin breaking down physically and emotionally, yet tenaciously aroused. This is Kapesh without the same incisive self-awareness. Our ostensibly third-person narrator does not close the gap. What that leaves us is with are some well-told anecdotes that do little besides get us to the big plot development, the twist that is supposed to inflate the mundane with meaning. The surprise feels inauthentic. The ending rather lame. Kevin’s sudden insight is less an epiphany than a momentary deviation. The ruts of his mind are too well-trod for Kevin nod to slip back into them if given the chance. In the end, Kevin is mostly pathetic.

I did not like the novel. It was not awful; it was not great.

The book does raise a few questions. First, what is with the sudden infatuation (at least among ToB contenders) with the term “micturate”? Two out of the last four books I have read have preferred micturate over urinate. Why? Micturate has never been particularly popular. While it gained popularity from the date it was coined (1842) until the 1880s, its popularity has decreased ever since. It seems to me this is with good reason. Urinate seems fine for the purpose, why an equally clinical sounding synonym? A clearer Latin heritage is not enough to convert me.

Second, why use a thesaurus so haphazardly? I cannot give points for soigné, micturate, scrim (used twice), or “a moiré of ripples”, when so many characters have helmet head (as a description of hair style; twice in three pages, at least three different characters plus a bonus comparison of a woolen cap to a helmet). Must every head covering be a helmet?

Finally, why is The Searchers such a popular movie among the ToB contender authors? It shows up in both Model Home and Next.