July 6th: On Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves and Stephen King’s The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon
By the end of the first chapter of History of Wolves, it’s obvious (or so we believe) what the story’s about. The setting: a backwoods town in northern Minnesota in which nothing much at all occurs. Mr. Grierson is a thirty-something history teacher, newly hired. Madeleine, the novel’s narrator, is fifteen years old. Lily, a classmate who catches the eye of Mr. Grierson, is the same age. After a regional academic competition in which Madeleine wins the Originality prize for a presentation on the history of wolves, there is an incident in Mr. Grierson’s car, one initiated by Madeleine as much as her chaperone. And then it’s summer, and a manila folder of photos found in his old apartment outs Mr. Grierson as a pedophile. And then the news breaks of another incident—on a lake, alone—between Mr. Grierson and Lily. And then the novel flashes forward, providing us our first glimpse at the rest of Madeleine’s lonely life.
History of Wolves: the title alone suggests as much as this introductory summary. Madeleine and Lily represent the first two in a long line of prey; Mr. Grierson’s predations set the stage for a slew of more painful permutations. It’s a familiar story, and not a bad one. Cliches are cliches for a reason, after all, and only fail when they do not recognize themselves as such.
But then it’s Chapter Two, and Mr. Grierson’s story recedes. Whereupon another story, slower and sadder—and often sweeter—takes its place. Paul is four years old; Anna is twenty-six; Leo, her husband, is thirty-seven. Madeleine, fifteen, is Paul’s babysitter. Drawn together, they make an odd quartet of loneliness, each grasping out over a gulf of eleven years (at the minimum) in order to fill their separate lacks. Early on, Madeleine imagines the four of them aging, forward and backward, occupying the loci of each others’ pain. “I gave Paul time to be a lady-killer for real, to regret his Chinese tattoo, to begin to regret lots of things. You know. To be twenty-six.” A doom hangs over them all—Madeleine references a future trial, implies a crime one or more of them commit—but Madeleine isn’t able to face it head on. Not yet. So instead she commits herself to mentally unknotting the ties that still bind them. Anna fell in love with Leo, her astronomy professor at the University of Chicago, because he was a symbol of the subject he taught: romance, yes, but also stability. Predictability. Prophecy. Science, but also faith. Paul needs Anna, but Anna also needs Paul, and they need each other for the same reason: the third point of their triangle, the person that made them a recognizable shape, is gone. And as far as Madeleine is concerned, she needs each of them, equally, for the same reason. Isolated from her parents, pitying and envying her peers, desperate for the validation of another older man, the Gardners are the perfect candidates. And then the alluded-to doom arrives, and Paul, only four years old, dies.
Held up against the other book I read this week, The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon, the superior novel is obvious. Checking in at (for him) a brisk three-hundred pages, Stephen King’s story of a girl lost in the Maine wilderness is a tale of faith that, although well-told, amounts to little else. After days of wandering through the woods, Trisha pins her hopes for salvation upon Tom Gordon, the closer for the Boston Red Sox. Just as Gordon does, Trisha, as her time is running out, puts her faith in a higher power. And then she is resolute, and faces down the God of the Lost that’s been stalking her steps. She survives, and wakes up in the presence of her divorced parents, who’ve briefly reunited under the pressure of Trisha’s crisis.
Reading it in the wake of Fridlund’s novel, I couldn’t help but think about how she might have treated King’s premise. Trisha would have been older: fourteen, fifteen, sixteen. The divorce of her parents would have remained, but their relationship with Trisha would have been more fraught. Or, if not more fraught, more uniquely fraught: her closer relationship with her father would have widened the gap between him and her mother, perhaps. And Fridlund, unlike King (a Red Sox fan proudly blinded by his fandom), might have chosen to explore the problematic nature of idol worship, delving into the consequences of a young girl being saved by her adoration of a 32-year-old baseball player. The farmer who finds Trisha, for instance, might not have been so selflessly motivated. King’s heroine might have escaped one threat, only to find herself in a situation far more dangerous. The novel, instead of progressing in a largely chronological fashion, might have instead orbited, exploring the echoes of Trisha’s lack, pushing up against what it means to have faith, calling into question the worth of being saved. Wandering is an option, after all. It’s where History of Wolves’ Madeleine lands, and it’s not such an awful place.
I’ve said it before, and others have said it before, and so I’ll say it again: good novels do not answer questions. They do not set out to cure Society™’s ills. They ask them. And the best novels ask the hard questions, the ones that few have asked before. The question at the heart of The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon—a good novel, despite all else—is a simple one: is there a God? If so, how do They manifest? How can one put their life in Their hands while also working to save themselves? The question at the heart of History of Wolves, by contrast, is a far harder one: lacking love, what becomes permissible? In the absence of another, in the presence of other avenues that have opened up: what paths is one allowed to take? Fridlund, in taking up this question, draws few hard lines; Mr. Grierson is the only figure unambiguously condemned. Anna and Leo’s relationship, although problematic, arises out of genuine love. Paul’s death is tragic, but can be traced back to a rationale pardonable by most. And Madeleine: Madeleine was raised by two members of a failed cult, in a wilderness that contained within it little hope of escape. She wants to, needs to, be wanted. Even if she acts badly—and she does, and often—who are we to deny her her needs?