Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Wednesday, March 3, 2021: Maximum Shelf: Morningside Heights

Pantheon Books: Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Pantheon Books: Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Pantheon Books: Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Pantheon Books: Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Morningside Heights

by Joshua Henkin

In Morningside Heights, a complex and character-driven novel, Joshua Henkin (The World Without You; Matrimony) explores what is lost and gained in loving another person: a parent, a spouse, a child, a sibling, a friend.

When Pru moves to New York City in 1976, she thinks she knows what she wants. But while studying Shakespeare, she falls head over heels for her grad school professor--a cliché even to her, as an active participant in the affair--and ultimately abandons her academic pursuits in favor of marriage to the brilliant Spence Robin. The two have a daughter, Sarah, and occasionally host Spence's son, Arlo, for visits. Each week, Spence visits his sister, Enid, brain damaged from a drunk driving accident as a teen, in a nearby nursing home. Sarah goes to college. Arlo meets Enid. Spence teaches. Pru gets a job in fundraising. Life ticks on.

And then, decades later, Spence begins acting oddly. Forgetting words, moments, names. Mixing up details, missing classes. He and Pru attend a costume party in black tie clothing when Spence misunderstands "festive" attire to be "formal" attire. It's almost funny, except that there is an underlying concern to the scene that implies there is something more sinister than a need for better reading glasses. Readers will not be surprised when these symptoms ultimately lead to a diagnosis of early-onset Alzheimer's; Pru, on the other hand, is caught off guard, once again finding that the life she thought she had planned out is gone.

This diagnosis drives Morningside Heights forward to its sadly inevitable conclusion. Alzheimer's, after all, remains incurable. Drawing in part on his own experience watching his father battle the disease, Henkin explores with great tenderness the many, many challenges of losing a loved one to Alzheimer's, the ways in which it both saddens and frustrates, moves too slowly and also entirely too fast. "Tell me all the things I'm going to forget," Spence says to Pru shortly after his diagnosis. "Will I forget to love you?... Don't let me forget to love you."

It is impossible to read such an exchange and not be moved, not to see the gentle ways Henkin picks and probes at the unique form of loss that Alzheimer's puts a family through. Despite this, though, Morningside Heights is not, ultimately, a sad novel. Henkin imbues it with a sense of hope, a kind of appreciation for the mundane moments that make up a life, the relationships that define not just who a person is, but what they can become.

Though Pru and Spence's relationship forms the backbone of Morningside Heights, Henkin expertly moves between the internal and external thoughts of each of the many characters in its pages. In so doing, the novel offers nuanced perspectives of the relationships among them. Pru sees herself as a professor's wife, then as caregiver for an ailing husband; a mother who heaps praise upon her daughter, and a stepmother who sometimes stumbles in finding patience for a troubled stepson. Arlo yearns for love and stability from his mother, his father, Pru, from anyone in his family, and, failing to find it, settles for attention instead. Sarah antagonizes her half-brother only to wish for his company when he's gone.

The true depth of Morningside Heights lies in Henkin's ability to portray each of these relationships at a particular moment in time, but also in the ways that they--like all relationships--are fluid. In speaking of his relationship with Spence, Pru tells Arlo, "There's regret on both sides. But that doesn't have to be the end of the story." And it is not the end of the story, metaphorically or literally; this exchange happens midway through the book, despite it being near the end of Spence's life.

Henkin uses these connections and the moments they are made of to move Morningside Heights backward and forward in time, from Pru's arrival in New York in the 1970s to Spence's funeral in the early 2000s. This is not, however, a novel of flashbacks or vignettes; the shift from past to present and back again is so fluid that the effect is kaleidoscopic, each moment bleeding into the next in ways that shed new light on what we know and understand about this family and its many dimensions.

Morningside Heights is powerful in a quiet, unsuspecting way. Nothing particularly big happens. There are no twists, no magical cures to Spence's illness, no perfect resolution between characters who have been unkind to one another over the years. But in Henkin's masterful hands, this story of everyday events becomes bigger than the sum of its parts, a novel that explores what it means--and what it takes--to love another person, and to be loved in return. --Kerry McHugh

Pantheon, $26.95, hardcover, 304p., 9781524748357, June 15, 2020

Pantheon Books: Morningside Heights by Joshua Henkin

Josh Henkin: The Questions Fiction Asks and Answers

(photo: Michael Lionstar)

Joshua Henkin is the author of four novels, including Matrimony and The World Without You. His fourth novel, Morningside Heights (coming from Pantheon in June), explores the relationship between Pru and her husband, Spence, as he is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. Henkin lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., and directs Brooklyn College's Fiction MFA program.

There are multiple story threads in this novel--was there one that started as the seed?

I wrote over 3,000 pages for Morningside Heights. That's how I always work: write thousands of pages, throw most of them out and, eventually, I find the heart of the novel. Morningside Heights started as a very long short story that took place at a class for caregivers at a Jewish community center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. The seed for the book was my mother's experience in a similar class when she was caring for my father. My mother is not the kind of person who gravitates toward such classes--toward adult education in general--and I was interested in what it would be like for someone like her to be thrust into contact with strangers in this way. The first draft of the book began at the JCC. By the 20th draft, the JCC was in the garbage pail, though one character from the class remains.

That's a lot of drafting! Is it safe to assume, then, that you don't work from an outline?

I definitely don't start with an outline; I don't even start with an idea. A college classmate of mine wrote her psychology thesis on how adults group objects versus how kids group objects. The adults group the apple with the banana, and the kids group the monkey with the banana. That's another way of saying that kids are more natural storytellers than adults are. The fiction writer's job is to think like a child again--albeit like a smart, sophisticated child. I think it was E.L. Doctorow who said that writing a novel is like driving on the highway in the dark. The lights illuminate only the few hundred feet ahead of you, but if you keep driving a few hundred feet at time you get across the country. I start with a character or a situation, or sometimes just with a line of prose. I eventually outline, but that's many years in, once I have the mess of thousands of pages in front of me.

Morningside Heights is very character-driven; was there a particular character whose story you found easier to get into? Or harder?

They're all impossible. That's why it took me seven years to write this book! Writers need to be a lot of things, but they need to be compulsive most of all. I wouldn't say Arlo was easier than any of the others, but there was something about discovering him that really opened up the book for me. I was a couple of years into writing when I said to myself, What if Spence had been married previously, and what if he had a son? I gave it a try, and the book moved in directions I couldn't have anticipated. Although the book's central character is definitely Pru, Arlo's influence on the book is at least as great, and he may have been the most important character in terms of shaping the book and determining its form.

One of the difficulties of writing a book about someone who has Alzheimer's is that there isn't much tension in the disease itself. There's a lot of variation in the particulars, but the overall disease course is unfortunately inevitable. So the tension and uncertainty have to come from somewhere else. And Arlo is all tension and uncertainty. Also, because he disappears and reappears and disappears again, his absence and reemergence help mark time in the book.

Was it hard to write about the ways Pru lost Spence, slowly and then all at once?

Absolutely. I think if you inhabit your characters, as any good novelist must, then their pain is your pain. Although much of Morningside Heights is invented, it is, in many ways, my most autobiographical novel to date. My father, like Spence, was a professor at Columbia who developed Alzheimer's, though my father developed it much later in life than Spence did. In writing about the ways Pru lost Spence, I was re-experiencing my mother's loss, and my brothers' and my loss. And it's a perpetual loss because you're losing someone bit by bit. I think in certain ways that the earliest stages of the disease are the hardest. There's a passage toward the end of Morningside Heights that captures what I'm getting at: "Early on, when [Spence] was sufficiently himself that [Pru] almost wouldn't have known anything was wrong, the bad moments were made worse because she had his old self to compare him to. That was when she would rage at him, when she would tell him to try harder, to concentrate.... Now, though, he was so far gone that to rage at him would be like raging at a stone.... Finally she was able to be kind to him in a way she hadn't been before."

Morningside Heights also felt to me like a story about what we owe each other: love, connection, time, continuity. Absent formal vows, as in a marriage, who defines the parameters of a relationship and how much is one expected to give?

Those are great, unanswerable questions. In fact, what makes them unanswerable is also what makes them great. I'm paraphrasing here, and also going from memory, but in Martin Amis's The Information, the writer protagonist is asked by an interviewer what his book is about, and he says, "It's not about anything. It just is. All two hundred thousand words of it. If I could have written it in fewer, I would have." One of the things that draws me to fiction is that there are no shortcuts to portraying a life. Good fiction is irreducible. Which is another way of saying that a novel is much better at asking questions than it is at answering them. --Kerry McHugh

Powered by: Xtenit