It’s good to know that characters in a contemporary American novel can talk as gloomily about God as characters in a 19th-century Russian novel. Ellen, the eccentric aunt of Wyatt Palmer, the unheroic hero of Charles Baxter’s new novel, Shadow Play, believes that ”the God we once had is certainly gone, and we have another one now, a god nobody is talking about. The god of pure curiosity, who doesn’t love us, but who watches us, day after day.” It’s a chilling thought, all right — a god that watches us much as we watch television.
Wyatt finds his way to similar reflections. Having married his college girlfriend, he has returned to Five Oaks, Mich., a small city sunk in rust-belt inertia, where he was raised by Ellen after his father, a withdrawn, ruminating architect, suddenly died and his mother went crazy.
Also in Five Oaks — in the local jail, in fact, when we first see him — is Wyatt’s wayward cousin Cyril. Out of jail he lives in a motel room of outstanding squalor and is goofily self-sabotaging. Wyatt is hired as assistant city manager, doing ”hard hack work with mosquito-size results.” But some of the mosquitoes cast large, ominous shadows.
Wyatt obtains the permits for a chemical plant to be built by a high school classmate of his, now a successful, nasty businessman. In return he asks the businessman to give Cyril a job as janitor at the plant. Meanwhile, Cyril, humiliated by the money Wyatt has been giving him, comes under the spell of R. Stan Drabble, a self-help guru who bears a strong satirical resemblance to L. Ron Hubbard, founder of Scientology. Wyatt soon has to confront the possibility that he has poisoned Cyril, his anarchic alter ego, in both a symbolic and a real sense.
This leads to a climactic scene, a suicidal drowning within moral shouting distance of murder. Drowning is a fate that had stalked Wyatt as a boy but that fell on another boy instead. It was this drowning that introduced Ellen to her eerie, watchful god, beyond good and evil. The sense of evil is what has been bleached out of modern society.
It hasn’t been bleached out of this novel, which tries hard to be disturbing, Dostoyevskian, and deep, and sporadically succeeds. The conjectures about the universe being run by a higher power of pitiless curiosity and about the moral inconsequence of individual life on an overcrowded planet are intriguing. The vision of contemporary spiritual inertia and numbness is compelling. But the moral ambiguities still don’t quite overshadow the sentimental, good-guys-versus-bad-guys aspects of the story. That the craziness of Wyatt’s mother is rendered as endearing and perhaps wise suggests what’s wrong. The novel takes refuge in its immaculate conception of madness, eccentricity, and childlike spontaneity. Its virtue is that it’s nothing if not searching; its failure is that it too easily finds something. B