When I was around 12 years old, my little brother’s best friend kissed me. The kiss was brief, and happened suddenly, while other people were out of the room for barely a moment. I was shocked, and only hours later did I make some arch, indignant comment about it — at which he calmly looked at me as if I were insane and said, “What are you talking about?” His denial was so well played that it convinced even me, so that to this day I’m not sure if my memory is real or imagined.
Paul Jaskunas’ Hidden takes place at just that kind of fragile intersection between objective truth and desire, between what really happened with two people, what each remembers separately, and a third, less-discussed aspect of memory — that part of the past we each invent to make the rest of it stick together.
The incident Jaskunas uses to shed light on that particular set of coordinates is the near murder of his narrator, Maggie Wilson. When we first encounter Maggie, she is living a closed, small-town life, shuffling back and forth between the gray Indiana farmhouse where she lives alone and the local newspaper where she works as the obituary editor. Maggie has a deep scar running along the crown of her head, from the night seven years ago when she was nearly bludgeoned to death in the hallway of the same farmhouse by an intruder in the middle of the night. Her husband, Nate Duke, was convicted of the crime and sent to prison, but now another man, a total stranger in the classic “stalker” mode, has come forward and claimed the crime.
Maggie is struggling not only with her dim memory of the incident but the long shadows it casts forward and backward on her past and her present. The question of whether her husband was capable of murder very much influences Maggie’s memory of all the little incidents leading up to the attack. If she is wrong, if her memory is wrong, then she did a terrible thing by sending him to prison. But Maggie’s need for Nate’s guilt is like an onion that gets peeled back further with every succeeding chapter, and it becomes clear, as more and more of the events leading up to the attack are revealed, that what Maggie really needs is for Nate to be guiltier than she is.
Jaskunas plays with the nature of truth, memory and desire, and it’s a testament to his skill that he does so without ever leaving the ground, so to speak; the ideas flow through actions and incidents. Which is oddly what makes the book feel a bit leaden at times; when Maggie begins exploring her memory, Jaskunas has her drawing pictures over and over again, nailing them to the living-room wall. It reads a bit like a clichĂ©d scene from a serial-killer movie, where the cops discover the bad guy’s “shrine” of pictures and newspaper clippings.
But if this accomplished novel verges on being maddeningly dull from time to time because of this excessive groundedness, it’s no duller than A Passage to India, which it resembles in its oblique theme, if nothing else. And if it’s a bit of a slog from time to time, Jaskunas can be forgiven, for it is a difficult thing to write about the truth of memory. Hidden is a far better book than Ian McEwan’s Atonement, another novel that took on the subject of truth and memory, but did so by perpetrating a brutal practical joke on the reader (and inexplicably earned many masochistic admirers for it). Dennis Potter’s only novel, Ticket To Ride(an overlooked classic), managed to pull off the same discussion, and so did neo-goth novelist Patrick McGrath in Spider, each by making their prose so damned gorgeous, vivid and compelling that the truth of art trumped all other kinds of truth, especially the pesky question of “What really happened?”
Jaskunas eschews gorgeousness in his prose, if not beauty. His achievement instead is to wring insight from a stone — in this case, his hard, gray heroine, Maggie, a woman who, like many of us, cannot begin to feel until she forgets to remember.
HIDDEN | By PAUL JASKUNAS | Free Press | 241 pages | $23 hardcover