Shelter In Place, by Alexander Maksik
In Alexander Maksik’s Shelter in Place, Joseph March is a recent college graduate with little ambition beyond bartending and having fun with his friends until he falls into all-consuming, slavish love with Tess Wolff. While they are still in the honeymoon phase of their relationship, Joseph learns that his mother has beaten a stranger to death with a hammer when she witnesses him striking his wife and children. His mother’s unforeseen act of violence and subsequent murder conviction cause his sister, Claire, to abandon the family completely, while Joseph and Tess follow his father to live in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, close to the prison. From an isolated and lonely present moment, decades after his mother’s crime, Joseph reflects on his mother’s mental health in light of his own untreated mental illness, his obsession with Tess, and his feelings of loss at her eventual abandonment.
Maksik reveals his protagonist’s tenuous lucidity, in part, through the moments Joseph breaks away from his narrative, directing his anger and hopelessness at the specter of his long dead parents, his sister, Tess, and even the reader. And yet, these rants and apologies reveal a character trying to come to terms with the violence he has been subjected to and participated in. The structure of the novel further illuminates Joseph’s dubious mental health. Maksik’s chapters are short – often merely a page and a half or less – and elliptical. Speaking to the reader, Joseph explains, “Forgive me, for today I am discursive. What a word that one, too, what sound, what meaning. Discursive, digressive and meandering. And baroque too. And absurd.” Maksik circles around the epicenter of a few, vivid and violent moments of Joseph’s life, delaying the specifics of these pivotal events until late in the novel. He returns to the same phrases and thoughts, and repeats the same summary of events, often telling them out of order. Although the recursiveness can, at times, be frustrating, this technique most often increases the tension and brings the reader into Joseph’s disoriented mind.
One of the most effective expressions of Joseph’s erratic state of mind is the lush and vivid metaphor of tar and bird. So often, a character’s disability is a metaphor for something lacking in their personality. Not so in Maksik’s novel. Instead, Maksik’s language describes something that Joseph, himself, acknowledges is nearly impossible to explain to those who do not experience it. While Joseph is never officially diagnosed, Maksik describes the highs and lows of bipolar disorder with heartbreaking beauty and terror. He writes, “I saw thick tar inching through my body. Then, as the pain sharpened, a blue-black bird, its talons piercing my lungs.” Joseph wonders if his tar and bird is his mother’s legacy. Early in the novel, Maksik details Joseph’s graduation dinner: “…I saw, or believed I saw in my mother’s eyes, the dark settling talons, the slow-flowing tar. And this vision chilled me. This quick belief that within her lived the same thing that lived in me.” However, Maksik does not romanticize Joseph’s mental illness or simplify his mistakes as merely a product of his disability or genetics. Joseph notes, “Perhaps my insistence on some magical correlation between us is only wishful, an invention without evidence. Perhaps in the end there is no shared beast, no common fog.” This ambiguity effectively complicates Joseph and his family dynamic.
Even more compelling than the tar and the bird metaphor is the metaphor in the very title of the novel. In the face of natural disasters, people are sometimes forced to evacuate their homes and take refuge out of the path of danger. But some disasters are impossible to outrun, making it necessary to shelter in place. This survival plan requires people to seal themselves off in a small, windowless, interior room of a building, rather than flee. Throughout the novel, Maksik employs this form of refuge as a metaphor for the ways Joseph attempts to protect himself from untreated mental illness, heartbreak, violence, and family discord. With lyric beauty, Maksik explores how these dangers permeate Joseph’s environment like a chemical leak or biological contamination.
There is a moment in which Joseph recalls playing hide and seek with Tess. Joseph hides and when Tess finally finds him in a closet, he explains:
There were boots and shoes and sandals all around us. She reached up and pulled my father’s old down parka from its hanger and covered us with it. Her hand above us on the sleeve. I pulled the door closed. The wind and rain and thunder were shaking the house.
We stayed on the floor for hours, breathing, bundled in the pitch dark listening to the storm.
This doesn’t merely reflect Joseph’s desire to remain in a small, protected space, away from the everyone save Tess. It is one example of how he conflates her with this safe space. But a shelter in place is a temporary protection, not a long term solution. And to stay in such a personal fortress for too long is to eventually suffocate on your own toxic air. Joseph hunkers down in his murky shelter where love and co-dependency are indistinguishable and tells us readers, “I worry that Tess remains nebulous. And that cannot be. You must see her for any of this to matter. It is not the story, it is her. It is Tess I am trying to translate.” His attempts at translating Tess are not entirely effective. This is because, while Maksik doesn’t romanticize mental illness, Tess certainly does. She rarely acknowledges the destruction the murder leveled on Joseph’s family and instead uses it to justify her rage and give her a sense of purpose. And Joseph’s unflinching devotion to Tess can be frustrating, even pathetic. However, in Joseph’s ability to love Tess and his complete belief in her, Maksik explores human resiliency, forgiveness, and love in the aftermath of violence.
Shelter in Place is available now through Europa Editions.