"Bound" by Antonya Nelson

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Author Antonya Nelson populates her latest, “Bound,” with frail human beings who exhibit their weaknesses for the reader, and leave us with the question, how does one rise above temptation? However, the specific question Ms. Nelson poses at the novel’s end, where she directs our attention to the similarities between a serial adulterer and a serial murderer, strikes at the true heart of the issues.

This novel consists of the stories of a handful of Midwestern American women, known to each other, who come from a variety of backgrounds. Misty Mueller, killed in a car accident early on, was high school best friends with Catherine Harding. These two could not have come from more diverse backgrounds: Misty’s home is full of sullen male relatives who keep engine blocks on the kitchen table; Catherine’s mother has achieved prominence as a strong-willed no-nonsense professor at the University. Misty surprises: she's the one who becomes a mother, and the plot revolves around the eventual unification of Catherine with Misty’s orphaned daughter, Catherine’s namesake, called Cattie. Catherine is also Oliver’s third wife. He, pushing 70, is a generation older than Catherine, and has retrogressed to a still-younger generation, having fallen in love with the Sweetheart. Oliver provides the full force of the conflict here. An inveterate philanderer, always "trading up" from young to younger. Cattie’s arrival signals an end to these episodes, he seems to realize, and he finds by story’s end he has more in common with his wife’s mother than with any other woman in the book.

Ms. Nelson does a decent job of balancing the bad (Oliver) and ghastly (the serial killer occupying the news in the background) men, with the nobler, put-upon women in her story. She does this by portraying the women as shrieking harridans, or vapid nobodies, or sullen, rebellious 30-somethings who have failed to emerge emotionally from high school. Cattie's arrival at Catherine's and Oliver's home, brings him up finally, to a point where he realizes his game is up. This next-generation distillation of Catherine and Misty triggers a new and promising comprehension in our reprehensible Oliver.

At the point of wrapping things up, the author sets up a rather heavy-handed comparison: in the background, a serial killer binds, tortures, and murders a series of victims. Oliver, of all people, sees how his own failure to resist his urges corresponds at some level to the murderer’s dark impulses. I wanted to be careful comparing these two, because I wanted to be fair to Ms. Nelson’s intent. I believe finally, that the author set up the serial killer as a shadow figure, to give Oliver's antics a deep, sinister accent. And if we pay attention to Oliver's own cogitations, where he finally realizes that evil and self-absorbed impulses can indded be resisted, then the damage he inflicted - two ruined marriages and a third one threatened - can be viewed in better perspective. Serial adultery is like serial killing in attitude but not degree.
It did at length occur to me: among other things, the “Bound” of the title clearly indicates the nature of women’s relationships with men. Ms. Nelson, formidable, all-seeing, shows us our weaknesses in the unblinking light of her highly professional, yet distinctive, prose. There may be writers out there exhibiting characters as real as these, but none are any more real, or more honestly portrayed.
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