Jenkins, A.M.  Beating Heart.  New York: Harpercollins, 2006.

The alternating narratives are visually distinguished from each other–his is third person present narrative that looks typically novel-like, hers a first person collection of thoughts set out on the page to look sort of like poetry (but hardly actually ever achieving anything poetic–the only thing this spacing of a few words over a lot of blank paper accomplishes, besides the death to far too many trees,  is to make the book a very quick read; I actually managed to get through two-thirds of it in just one wait in my doctor’s office, and he wasn’t even having one of his bad days).  The alternating characters are a girl from the past, now a ghost inhabiting her former residence, and a boy in the present who moves into the house and into what was her bedroom, where she is immediately aware of him, and he is increasingly aware of her presence.

Why she is there as a ghost is not immediately obvious, but it gradually comes out that she fall in love with a young visitor, slept with him, and then assumed he would marry her.  But instead, he kills her by suffocating her, and no one knows he did it.  He got off scot free, and she still haunts the house, still in love with him and unable to let go.

Meanwhile, in the present, the boy is in a relationship with a girl, loves the sex but has to admit he really doesn’t love her or even find her all that interesting out of bed.  So there’s a parallel, in a way, or perhaps a contrapuntal relationship: a girl used sexually who’s hoping for love, and a boy who just wants sex and can’t or won’t commit to love.  He gets his way, and when she tries to get hers–a commitment from him to loving her–he find himself wanting to kill her.  One iof the boy does kill his girl.  One doesn’t–and that’s what the novel is actually about.

The novelist’s choice of focalizing characters has interesting implications in relation to conventional gender assumptions.  She clearly represents conventionally “female” attitudes, ones very clearly at one pole of a firmly antithetical set of opposites: she is frillily italicized, sensitively poetry-like, and committed to emotion over passion, love over sex, meaningful relationships over random randiness; not surprisingly, she is also of the past, representing nostalgia and pastoral rather than evolutionary survival of the fittest, nature over aggressive conquering of everything.   He is more or less the opposite of all that, a boy of our time with a commitment to lack of commitment and a focus on self-interest.  This would, obviously, have been quite a different novel if we had that boy from the past and the girlfriend in the present as the protagonists: if we went by conventional assumptions, we might then assume that nothing much of interest to readers would happen, since they’d both want the same thing, i.e., a good time and nothing much more–she’d ask him to say he loved her and he’d say it to get what he wants and that would be that.   Or maybe we’d have a less-clichéd, more sensitive boy now, or a more moral and upstanding boy representing a different cliché of the past, and that would create a quite different effect again.  Thinking about these alternatives reveals exactly how much the novel does bring conventional gender assumptions into play and depend on readers recognizing them.

It does so, I think, in order to suggest a break from them.  The plot revolves around the ghost girl’s confusion of the contemporary boy with her old lover: she thinks he has returned.  In a sense, he has, for this boy is in a similar relationship and behaving in it in a similar way.  But at the end, he does not actually kill her–although he does duplicate the beginning of a suffocation attempt, either out of a similar anger at his girlfriend or because he is somehow being forced by the ghost to relive her past.  He avoids being a murderer, it seems, because he is not actually that old boyfriend–he is someone else, an actually sensitive boy with a young sister he loves and feels concern for.  And since he can feel concern for others, he can escape fulfilling the old self-interested pattern being imposed on him.  She, too, can then escape that pattern–for his doing so seems to teach the ghost that she can do so, too, that it is possible to let go and move on.

The alternating narratives here work most interestingly in terms of how they operate across the two relationships–how the alternations of people in two different stories about two different relationships come to form a third story as they alternate with each other, and then suggest the various parallels and variational relationship in the other two stories.  Contiguity creates new and different meanings and introduces a whole other plot or story arc than the one each of the two alternating focalizers thinks he or she is experiencing.

One other thing that interests me here: the set-up is very much like that of a traditional Harlequin romance (or even, say, Jane Eyre: the story of a theoretically more powerful, more brutal, male in search of sex and a theoretically more passive, more sensitive female; he threatens to overpower her with his lust, but she eventually conquers him with her love into agreeing to a moving ongoing relationship.  This novel doesn’t exactly end that way, for the two central characters are not together, and one boy doesn’t agree to love and one girl doesn’t survive–but at the end, lust has been constrained and controlled, and both the central characters are committed to love, for sure.

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