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Pickle Me This

October 5, 2011

Vital Signs by Tessa McWatt

Tessa McWatt writes the strangest novels. I’d read Step Closer in 2009, and found it utterly puzzling; not perfect, but so unlike anything else I was reading at the time that it struck a chord and stayed with me, the way she experimented with narrative and form to challenge the limits of fiction and story. Her latest novel Vital Signs is just as odd, and just as much a puzzle. It begins with a husband whose wife is wearing an electrode cap, having her brain scanned, and it dawns on him that he is not worthy of her. And we are to take from this that the idea has never occurred to him before the novel’s first sentence, that in all the years underlying this novel’s relatively brief time span, that he’d never considered this dynamic. But it’s hard to take him at his word, because he’s a narrator who doesn’t even know his own story, let alone his own self.

Michael is the kind of husband who’s always loved his wife best at a kind of distance. (I’d mentioned that McWatt’s previous book reminded me of Emily Perkins’ Novel About My Wife. It ain’t got nothing on how this one does.) He’s attracted by the darkness of her skin when he first meets her, and waits for weeks to discover where she actually comes from, because he prefers the allure of mystery. An allure that is all but extinguished when his exotic wife is transferred to a domestic setting, and sets to work keeping his house and rearing his children. Michael’s disappointment is only added to when his design career doesn’t take off as he expected, and though he does well enough, so many dreams remain unrealized. His desperation for more finds an outlet in a cliched affair with a young colleague, which ends after too many years of her wanting more than he can give.

When Michael’s wife Anna is diagnosed with an aneurysm, the history of his marriage becomes stirred up in the present. He knows there is a chance his wife could die, and he is anxious to confess his sins to her. But this is complicated by Anna’s medical problems, which have left her with a mangled, near-indecipherable way of communicating. The words themselves are clear, but put together, they are nonsense, or else they are stories of things she believes are true that have actually never happened.

And yet, Michael feels there is secret meaning to what she says, that she knows more than she lets on. He begins to find himself communicating with her better than he has in years, and he uses his own skills in designing pictograms to tell her things he’s never been able to put into words. The reader finds, however, that he’s really just slipping into the same old patterns, lusting after his wife when she is away from him, exoticizing her character. He imagines the dressings that will be wrapped around her head after brain surgery: “[the nurse] will wrap it once, twice, more times around Anna’s head, and my wife will resemble an Egyptian nomad.”

Puzzles aside (and there are plenty. McWatt is attempting to answer the question, “What is a mind?” after all. The novel contains actual representations of Michael’s pictograms, and I confess to poring over the novel’s ending and still not really understanding what happened. Though perhaps this is the point– that Anna gets it, and this is all that matters), this is a novel about marriage and family. A decidedly bleak novel about marriage and family, and Michael’s ambivalence toward his wife and children pointedly demonstrates the desperate underside of love.

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