I had panned Michelle Huneven's 2014 novel Off Course as “Loser Lit” (see Aug. 19, 2015, post), but Blame (2009) deserves to have been nominated for the National Book Critic’s Award, not only for its thought-provoking variation on a literary convention, but also for its unusual structure and noteworthy style.
One of her friends refers to Patsy's story as a cautionary tale or recovery narrative. I don't really equate the two, however. A cautionary tale usually ends in disaster, thus underscoring the story's warning against certain behaviors. A recovery narrative, on the other hand, typically ends positively after the protagonist has overcome illness, bad fortune, or poor choices. And usually the recovery is self-directed, testifying to the protagonist's strong character.
Blame is a recovery narrative with a twist, in that the poor choices and bad fortune turn out to be not quite what Patsy thought she was recovering from. The title could just as well have been Guilt, since the novel mostly focuses on Patsy's efforts to make amends and redeem herself from a terrible mistake resulting in the death of two people. In the end she discovers she is less guilty than originally thought.
The most interesting question in this situation is what you would do if you suddenly discovered the assumption you had based your life on was false. Would you second-guess every decision you had made? Would the false assumption negate the validity of the life you built based on it? Would it undercut your very authenticity? Pasty doesn't take it that far, but she does make some changes as the truth of the past reveals some truths in the present.
Unlike the typical recovery narrative, this one leaves us, not with the sense of redemption so much as a sense of uncertainty, uncertainty about our responsibility for the past, our self-knowledge in the present, and our prospects for the future.
I say "our" because we all base our life choices on certain assumptions, which may or may not be true; we've all had the experience of suddenly "seeing the light" as the truth is revealed to us, of suddenly realizing what we thought was true was false all along, or conversely that what we thought was false was in fact true. And we all know what it's like to have to question our lives, our expectations, and ourselves. Just when we think we've got our act together, something unexpected throws us off balance. Real lives just don't easily fit the neat formulas of literary convention.
The first chapter of Blame is narrated from the point of view of a minor character, who introduces us to Patsy and later becomes the means by which Patsy learns the truth that has been withheld from her. The rest of the novel is recounted from Patsy's point of view. I found this shift awkward and puzzling, but it does provide some foreshadowing and a glimpse of the main character from another perspective.
Michelle Huneven is a good writer. Her style is not particularly distinctive, but it’s not pedestrian either. On almost every page there a striking image or turn of phrase that makes the reading experience worthwhile, even when you’re not terribly keen on the character or plot.
But what is most noteworthy about the novel is its haunting question: What if the assumption you had based your life on turned out to be false? As one character says, “It does kind of set you up for a major life review.”
In Patsy’s case it leads to a newfound freedom in the present, uncertainty about the future, and lots of ambiguity about the past.