Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Double Bind

The title The Double Bind by Chris Bohjalian did not resonate with me as to meaning anything other than being in a mess or "being in a bind," a term used loosely by me from time to time in conversation with others over situations in which I find myself in conflict -- like having to be in two places at once or not having enough time to both clean my house and read my book. What a bind!


Bohjalian uses "double bind" to explain the onslaught of schizophrenia in a child whose mother professes to love him, but at other times actually turns away from him "in disgust." The child cannot effectively decode these mixed messages, and so he escapes into another world. How accurate this use of the term is -- is not really important in its use in the novel.

The novel opens with a prologue narrating, in the first person point of view, a young college sophomore's brutal attack, while riding her bicycle on a logging road in Vermont, by two men in ski masks. Laurel, the bicyclist, survives the attack, she tells, by clinging fiercely to the handlebars and by not releasing her feet from the pedal clips, a unforeseen difficulty for her attackers. After vividly describing her physical wounds -- including broken fingers and a collar bone and the deep scrapes she suffered while being dragged still adhered to her bicycle across the gravel road -- as well as the emotional trauma of being afraid that she was moments from death-- a group of men, also bicyclists, close behind her on the road, scare off the attackers and save Laurel's life.

As the novel opens, it is seven years later, and Laurel, with a Masters in social work, currently makes a living as case manager at a homeless shelter called B.E.D.S. and has befriended a schizophrenic. The schizophrenic homeless man has few possessions except for a crumbly box of black and white photos and negatives. Calling himself Bobby Crocker, the homeless man dies suddenly and leaves behind the box which he had refused to let other see --
among his collection were ones of Eartha Kitt, Flip Wilson, Robert Frost, Chuck Berry, and Julie Andrews as well as photographs of himself and his sister taken in front of his childhood home. The childhood home strangely enough is supposedly - the home of Tom and Daisy Buchanan, the fictional characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby - and his sister -- Pamela Buchanan, their daughter.

Since Laurel herself had been a photographer, her boss thinks that she might be interested in cataloging the photographs for a possible exhibit that could raise much needed funds for the homeless shelter. Laurel finds herself totally immersed in the photos and seizes this box of Crocker's fading memories and uses the local college's darkroom to develop the negatives.

As the negatives float to life, Laurel believes she is uncovering an old dark family secret -- a secret that someone might pay to keep from surfacing. Determined to prove Crocker's brilliance as a photographer and give him legitimacy, Laurel doggedly guards the photographs in order to unravel the seventy year history of Crocker's past and his connection to the family of Fitzgerald's novel.

Even though I found Laurel's story compelling, the riveting opening having cemented my interest , the fact that Bohjalian uses the fictional Fitzgerald characters in his fictional work was all kinds of strange to me. Perhaps it is because I know the novel so well, and its being interwoven into Laurel and Bobby's story was just weird.

How is that any different than the way other writers have used historical figures in their ficitional works?

I dunno. I can't explain it.

Regardless, Bohjalian managed to keep me interested, and his shocking revelation at the end only added to my enjoyment of the novel.

Should you read it? I dunno.

BTW: Bohjalian added photographs taken by a real photographer, Bob "Soupy" Campbell, to the pages of his novel. Apparently, Campbell was homeless at the end of his life and his photographs left behind at a shelter. The photographs included have nothing to do with the story. :(


  1. After making this post last night, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I wrote "scraps" instead of "scrapes."

    LOL -- English teachers don't sleep -- they dream of errors.

    Dream of Errors -- sounds like a future post.

  2. LMFAO! Or the title of the book you should be penning! Dream of Errors- A Bedtime Story by Retired English. Heh. R.E.

    Ok. Your description left me incredibly intrigued. Methinks I may have found the book for my upcoming Insanity Road Trip: To and Fro.

    So, Campbell's life apparently seems to have been Bohjalian's muse, but why include his photos in the book and confuse the reader if they don't pertain to the story? Huh? Maybe I'll find some mind boggling correlation between the two after I've read it...