The Big Over Easy
Lynne Sharon Schwartz
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Buy *The Writing on the Wall* online

The Writing on the Wall

Lynne Sharon Schwartz
Counterpoint Press
297 pages
May 2005
rated 4 of 5 possible stars
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Where were you the morning of September 11th? Lynne Sharon Schwartz answers this question for Renata, the protagonist of her new novel, The Writing on the Wall: “People around her screamed, so she looked where they were looking, at a huge marigold bursting open in the sky, across the river, flinging petals into the blue.” But while her body stands still on the Brooklyn Bridge, halted on her way to her linguistics job at the public library, Renata’s emotional state is already fractured, scattered, barely held together with a determined detachment – has been for years.

This detachment is challenged as communal grief takes hold of the city and nation, and as people from her past sift up through the ash and force her to choose between the present and what might have been. She finds a teenage girl wandering a street gazing at posters of lost people and believes her to be her niece, her dead twin sister’s daughter, kidnapped from a park eleven years before. An aunt calls for the first time in nearly twenty years, and the uncle who started the torrent of sadness in Renata’s family turns up dying in a hospital bed in a Southern city. These characters from her history tug her toward both an act of selfishness and one of self-destruction, but Renata’s boyfriend and a baby boy suddenly orphaned by the fall of the towers keep her facing the future; they remind her to wish for possible things.

every one of her books, Schwartz has something to teach her readers. From Disturbances in the Field, we get a survey course in philosophy and music; The Fatigue Artist makes holistic healing and Tai Chi accessible and important; and The Writing on the Wall gives us a deeper understanding of language, our own and that of a few dwindling cultures whose speech is in danger of extinction. This examination of words and their shades of meaning is embedded in Renata’s story of the few weeks following the attacks. Schwartz gives us a new vocabulary for loss: tanfos-oude (might be found), tanfori-oude (will possibly return), tanfendi-noude (gone forever).

In between tastes of a melodic, foreign language and Schwartz’s own gorgeous prose, we are fed blips of President Bush’s oratorical responses to the tragedy; it can be no accident that these sound bytes fall bluntly, coldly on the ears in the midst of so much precise warmth coming from the writer’s word processor. Schwartz also addresses the pervasive presence of television in today’s culture – Renata never actually saw the planes hit the towers, but because of the continuous coverage in nearly every house in America, she feels like she saw. “Overnight, it’s become everyone’s favorite disaster movie…”

Occasionally, briefly, the plot seems to slide into a too-convenient pattern: Schwartz takes advantage of the aftereffect of a national tragedy and brings together people who would otherwise have remained ignorant of each other’s proximity. However, it’s easy to forgive this, as she does it not for a tightly fitted, formulaic story, but to explore what happens when people crash back together after years spent harboring anger, worry, and love.

On every page images of twins, doubles and alternative histories are mentioned or alluded to. Schwartz’s great strength is in reminding us of what her book is about, the damage that occurs when whole entities and families are cleaved apart, when two become one, become none. And behind all of Renata’s remembering of her own past lurks the current state of sorrow: “What they can’t control is gazing every few moments at the blank parallel bars in the sky, like everyone else. Just checking, in case the buildings might suddenly reappear.”

Originally published on Curled Up With A Good Book at © Andi Diehn, 2005

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