'Shipwreck' more about storytelling than sex

Novel could use a more vulnerable narrator

Sunday, December 7, 2003

John North has something to get off his chest. He needs a stranger with a friendly ear.

You won't like him much when he's through talking. He understands -- he doesn't like himself all that much, either.

Give him credit, though -- the man can tell a story.

The unnamed narrator of "Shipwreck," the latest from "About Schmidt" novelist Louis Begley, becomes buttonholed in a bar by North, a novelist of some reputation.

Over the next few days, North's new confidante finds himself alternately spellbound and repelled by what seems, at first blush, to be a stock tale of infidelity and regret.

Though North professes devotion to his loving wife, Lydia, he beds a French magazine journalist on a whim -- and like generations of philanderers before him, finds adultery to be a messy, sordid and ultimately passionless sort of addiction.

North might argue that his affair has made him more sympathetic to his female characters. And after several bouts of existential doubt about the value of his work, he would contend that the whole affair has infused his writing with new life.

Perhaps so -- but developments late in "Shipwreck" find him no less reptilian in his instinct for self-preservation.

This is no cautionary tale for would-be cheaters, though. North seems to lead an inordinately charmed life, for all the consequences his actions carry.

Nor is "Shipwreck" in any sense erotic. When North describes his liaisons, his accounts -- for the most part -- carry all the warmth of a documentary on the mating habits of snakes.

In the end, the book isn't really about lust, or lies, or the stereotypical artistic bent to narcissism and self-destruction.

It's about the question every first-person novelist faces, sooner or later: "How much of this is really about you?"

North has a ready answer:

"What I hope you will accept as true is that my new novel, just like its brothers and sisters, is autobiographical in only one sense: it's made out of stuff that life has deposited inside me. But my novels aren't about me, and none of them is the story of my life."

But if North is so good at making strangers believe that something has actually happened to him -- well, who's to say he isn't testing out a new plot line on an unsuspecting audience?

That sly undercurrent, the sense that North's narrative is an idle joke at a stranger's expense, won't go away. It's just too bad that Begley couldn't have come up with a more vulnerable, more likable jokester.