Monday, May 13, 2013

Reunion by Alan Lightman

A reunion is a coming together, a reuniting of like minds that have shared like experiences. At the core of REUNION (2003, Pantheon Books) by Memphis's own Alan Lightman, however, is detachment. In the opening scene, Charles, a small-college professor, is lying post-coitus with a woman and wishing he was someplace else. "I fly above mountains, dizzy, frightened," Lightman writes. Charles is there, but he isn't, in this house that once belonged to an ex-wife who left it to him. It is his, but it isn't. On televsion, Charles and Sheila watch news footage of a devastating Honduran earthquake and, even as Sheila says she will donate money and urges him to, as well, he has trouble mustering sympathy for something so far away. "The truth is, I feel no connection to the faces on the screen. The Hondurans
are just so many electronic pixels."

Charles attends his twentieth college reunion alone and wanders the campus as though it is all new to him. He talks with classmates who he has no real affection for, and then he begins to recall an episode from his college days with intense clarity. It was during that time that he met the great love of his life, Juliana, studying to be a ballet dancer. The bulk of the book is spent in flashback, which switches from the opening first-person narrative to third-person. The protagonist is Charles, but it isn't.

Juliana lives and works in New York City, a two-hour bus ride for Charles; another instance of detachment. He becomes obsessed with her, wanting to be with her at all times and thinking only of her as he sits through biology and poetry classes. The time is the 1960s and, even as the names of classmates are added to a list of the dead in Vietnam, Charles feels no connection to this war or its protesters that he is of age to join. Juliana, too, is aloof. She tells him she loves him, but not as much as he says so. Much of their time together is spent with him watching her practice and then watching her work at a small diner where she waits tables. He is with her, but not.

When Charles suspects Juliana has found another lover, he becomes paranoid and obsessed with the idea. He has the heart of a poet and we see it flayed open, his agony at their distance and his not being able to have her in the way he wants as raw as an exposed nerve. There is risk in such obsession and Charles learns what the penalty is, still feeling it as though touching a hot stove even after more than twenty years.

Throughout the story, we are brought back to the first-person and the present where Charles picks among the shadows of the campus where all of this first happened, but it is obvious that his mind is not in the moment. He is here, but he isn't. His time and experience with Juliana shaped him in the way that we're all shaped by first loves, and first heartbreaks. Lightman is a trained physicist, a scientist, yet he, too, has the heart of a poet.