Lately I've caught myself deciding that certain experiences are universal, and immediately asking myself how I could possibly know that. The answer, of course, is that I can't. What I can do, however, is place some faith in the notion that the experiences of literary characters to which I most relate must feel relatively universal to others--why else would a book have been written and published?
This question of universality of experience is one I've been grappling with ever since I finished Dan DeWeese's You Don't Love This Man* last month. Here's why: there is really no part of my life that is anything like the life of DeWeese's protagonist, Paul, yet I related as much to his experience as any other character I've read in the last few months.
Paul is the father of a twenty-something girl who is about to get married to a man nearly twice her age--an old friend of Paul's, no less. This, in and of itself, might have sent Paul into a bit of a mental crisis, but DeWeese adds relationship issues with Paul's ex-wife, an old girlfriend, and a current colleague; plus a robbery at the bank Paul manages, to really set his character's (and his reader's!) head spinning.
DeWeese does a great job of weaving the mundane events of any given day in any given family with the potentially derailing missteps of a big day in a family's life (e.g., when the bride goes missing on her wedding day). Exploring the subject of middle-class, middle-American family life, coupled with DeWeese's narrative style--which skips back and forth between the actual events of the wedding day and flashbacky explorations of earlier times in Paul's life--reminds me somewhat of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. In both DeWeese's and Franzen's novels, the utter ordinariness of the characters induces the reader to plunge into the trivialities and banalities of his own existence.
As a result, the sorts of thoughts and conclusions that arrive for a group of readers may vary widely. As Paul remembered and revisited past experiences and relationships, and juxtaposed them with the goings-on of his daughter's wedding day, I wondered how things may have turned out for him had he made slightly different choices in life. Unsurprisingly, this led me to wonder how different my life might be now--or may be later--based on any number of small, medium, and large decisions I make on a daily basis.
For me, it's easy to let this kind of personal wondering give way to more cosmic wondering--about religion and science, big bangs and first movers--so I often had to reel myself in and refocus on the task at hand while I was reading. (This is probably one of the reasons it took me more than a month to read a book that was less than 200 pages long. Also, perhaps, why it has taken me more than a month since finishing the book to actually write anything about it.)
The mental meandering I did while reading and digesting this novel should not suggest any deficiency in the storytelling or the characters; rather, it should speak to just how real it all felt. I had genuine thoughts and concerns for Paul and his family and friends. I had to pause to think about how these characters' lives were related to my own. Isn't that, in the end, what universality of experience is really about? I think so. And despite the fact that you or I may never be the victim of a bank robbery, or may never have a young daughter marry one of our old friends, we can all relate to feeling pretty damn ordinary. And in You Don't Love This Man, I think DeWeese has captured the ordinary extraordinarily.
FTC disclosure: this review is based on an electronic galley copy of the book I received from the publisher.