Wherever love comes from, whatever is its genesis, it isn’t like a quantity of gold or diamonds, even water, in the earth – a fixed quantity, Fos thought. You can’t use up love, deplete it at its source. Love exists beyond fixed limits, beyond what you can see or count. It isn’t something measurable, something you can say okay, this is love from here to here. But if you take that river down there, Fos was thinking, you know darn well despite the tricks it plays to make you think it’s something that can last forever.
My book club read Evidence of Things Unseen on the recommendation of my friend Angie, who wrote in her Goodreads review that the book “had [her] crying on public transit a bit more than I’d like — as often for the glory of the language as for the heart-wrenching aspects of the story.”
For the last month I’ve been carrying the book back and forth between work and home, intending to chip away at this review, intending to copy down the many excerpts from dog-eared pages that made me gasp, gave me painful goosebumps, pricked my eyes with the beginnings of hot tears. Back and forth in my bag and on my bike, pulled out and set on the desk, then dropped on the coffeetable, waiting for my attention.
He believed there was an order and a method in the ultimate design of things but he believed that that design was the end result of a lot of trial and error. Trial and error as a fact of life was the first thing Fos expected every time he put on his shoes, turned the tap on, lit a match. Statistically he knew the odds were in his favor that his shoes would fit, water would come out of the tap, and combustion would occur – but he also knew that for no reason there existed chances that the opposite might happen. No use asking why or how: why and how were part of the design. As soon as you construct a thing you give its opposite a license to exist – you build a tower then you also build the chance it will fall. You fall in love with safety then you also fall prey to its failure to prevent the necessary trial and error. To think of life as foolproof is a fallacy of fools, he thought. Things happen, he believed, and there’s nothing you can do to keep them from occurring without taking out the magic spark plug, the genius of invention that ignited the adventure in the first place.
Evidence of Things Unseen is a love story. It is small and domestic, but it is also about science and technology and the ways those things disrupt and transform. It is about two very ordinary people who meet at the cusp of an era. The jacket description alludes to lawlessness and heartbreak, and while these things are present, they are in many ways incidental to the rest of the novel, to the interior monologues of Fos, Opal, and their child.
You come to know a person, you live together every day, you’re not really conscious of the changes taking place. Parenthood had come to them like a sudden shower or a gust that, unexpectedly, overstayed like climate, and in a blinking of an eye, without their ever knowing it, Lightfoot had become the context of their day, of every word they spoke, of every look they shared. But now Fos saw a way where they could be together again, and what she saw in his expression when he realized this was the sparkle of relief. He’d missed her…In the sunshine, once, beside a stream that gave into the Little Tennessee where they had stopped to stretch their legs and have some lunch on their way to Fos’s next assignment, Opal hitched her skirt around her waist to wade into the stream to wash the plates and Fos’s heart had skipped a beat. He’d never thought of her as someone who could turn heads, but as he stood there on the bank looking at her body, at her legs, he realized what a fragile thing possession is, how no one person ever owns another, how tenuous our hold is on another…
I found myself thinking about The Wild Palms as I read this book – not because I think Marianne Wiggins is an heir to Faulkner, or because I can make any comparative value judgement on the two novels. Rather, the similarities in time period and geography and selected events made me reflect on the differences in the way intimacy is written – whether they were artifacts of the author’s style or gender or time period or life experience. I tried to quantify this for my book club but couldn’t, not quite, perhaps because both rang true for me in subtly different ways.