The dangers of obsession and the struggle to rebuild in Doug Trevor's 'Book of Wonders'

Wednesday, November 15, 2017 - 1:23pm

“If literature should teach us anything, surely it should teach us that literature is not the only thing that matters in life.”

Such a peculiar conclusion for a character to come to in a short story, but it is the one that Theobald Kristellar reaches at the end of “Sonnet 126.” It is the conclusion, as a matter of fact, that many characters in Douglas Trevor’s recent collection “The Book of Wonders” eventually reach.

The stories in this collection broach many subjects — lost love, neglect, embezzlement, fraud, the classics — but they are all united under one: obsession. It is present in each story, be it an obsession with literature, a person, their studies, a library or faucets. It is the paranoid fixation of an obsession that seizes us when the rest of our life is falling to shreds. And that’s where the characters of “The Book of Wonders” find themselves: falling to pieces in one way or another and trying to rebuild on a cracked foundation.

Colin, Herbert and Theo, the protagonists of “The Detroit Frankfurt School Discussion Group,” “The Program in Profound Thought” and “Sonnet 126” respectively, display this struggle to rebuild in the face of depression. They are all professors of literature caught in the barren world of middle age, having experienced little success professionally or romantically. Faced with their own stagnancy and, subsequently, their own mortality, these characters find themselves floating, almost ghostlike, in a world devoid of meaning outside their copies of “Paradise Lost” and “Critical Theory.” So instead they try to become alcoholics, commit fraud to feel alive or simply isolate themselves from the rest of the world and hide in a library, until one small shift in what seems to be their predestined demise causes them to stop, reevaluate and rebuild.

Their trajectory is reminiscent of Newton’s First Law: An object in motion must stay in motion until acted on by an outside force. In the case of these characters, they are on their slow descent into meaninglessness until some unsuspected force intervenes. For Colin it is a stranger from Detroit looking to apply the Frankfurt School of Thought to his perishing community, for Herbert it is a new dean who finally notices the money he has been embezzling from Excellence University and for Theo, it is a lost Shakespearean couplet. All big or small events in their own right, but they provide enough of a jolt, enough of a force, to ignite change in the three men's lives. Because in the obsessions of others, these characters find a renewed sense of meaning in their own lives.

“Detroit Frankfurt School” and “Sonnet 126” draw us near to various obsessions, wrap us in a character’s intense fixation on the Frankfurt School of Thought and Renaissance literature and make us feel it, while “Profound Thought” lags behind in this regard. There is some charm missing from Herbert’s plight that makes it less enrapturing than Colin’s and Theo’s; a piece of personal familiarity that leaves us less invested in Herbert’s demise than the others. “Endymion” leaves us on this note as well.

Literature is heavily inlaid with other protagonists’ and supporting characters’ lives outside the realm of academic work. As we see in “Endymion” this extends as far as a Greek mythology meeting the streets of Boston. Taking the myth of Endymion, a beautiful man cursed to forever sleep beneath Selene, the moon, who was in love with him, Trevor reverses the roles. Endymion is obsessed with turning our narrator Cynthia into his moon, and lonely and desperate, she gives into it, no matter how much weight it means she may have to gain to achieve this. Like Herbert’s story, however, her narrative lacks balance; there isn’t enough of a compromise between plot and character, and as a result, Cynthia’s internal monologue inspires more revulsion than it does sympathy.

But even in their shortcomings, these stories are still exceptional. It is simply because they stand in comparison to perfectly crafted stories, like “The Librarian” and “Faucets,” that their narratives are even mentioned. To speak of the role of obsession in this collection is to speak of “The Librarian,” “Faucets” and “Book of Wonders.” These stories drag us deep into the psyche of their protagonists, as we are exposed to their hopes, fears and uncontrollable tendencies. One centers around a child’s need to turn on faucets, another a librarian’s inability to stop touching things — tables, books, plants, faces, eyelashes, things — and a woman’s possessive control over a singular notebook. 

Unlike “Frankfurt” and “Sonnet 126,” whose protagonists find themselves saved in another’s obsession, these stories take us into people who foster them, whose identities are intrinsically tied to the compulsive behaviors that envelope them. And because they cannot separate themselves from what compels them, they find themselves clinging to this false sense of control, making their stories devastating. There is little, if anything, indicating to them that this sense of control is exactly that: false. There is little, if anything, to suggest to them that their obsession isn’t the only thing that matters in life. So it’s that much harder for them to reach the same conclusion Theobald Kristellar does. It's the fine line between passion and obsession, and how one can rebuild from the ashes of diminished passion, but struggles infinitely harder to overcome obsession.