Jennifer duBois’s second novel, Cartwheel, is an example of psychological realism done right, that is to say, not locked into a desperate schemata designed to make each act of each character a Newtonian inevitability set into elegant motion within the heatless, frictionless word problem of The Way We Live Now; rather, it’s a fraught, cock-eyed rending of minds made ever more inscrutable the deeper we delve into them, a sort of dissection that ends with a pile of catalogued parts that can never again be whole. This is how the mind really works, or I should say instead, how it is, but too much realist writing has never gotten over Freud and sees consciousness as a knot to be untangled into a genealogy. Cartwheel is full of minds that make less sense as the book goes on, less sense to us and less sense to their own fictional selves. Superficially a novel about a notorious murder, it becomes a book about the obscurity and impossibility of motive, about the odd fact that self is as much a conceit as narrative; that as there aren’t actually stories in the world, neither are there selves.
The novel is both loosely and precisely based on the murder of Meredith Kercher in Perugia, or put another way, on the Amanda Knox affair, reset to Argentina, but following the general contours of that case closely. I’d heard about but hadn’t read duBois’s first novel; I should be honest and admit that the descriptions of the thing didn’t especially appeal to me; the setup sounded like the sort of prize-bait I try to avoid. I should maybe give it a chance. But I like lurid literature—I mean, I’m not above rereading Call Me by Your Name for the sex, for instance—and I was slightly fascinated by the Kercher/Knox story, as, I think, any former exchange student must be. So I grabbed Cartwheel from the library as a wild card and figured I’d read it in a night.
In fact, the murder story is a sort of MacGuffin; though the details are changed, it’s almost immediately evident that we’re not going to stray too far from the Knox case. What we get, instead, is a series of chapters that wind in and out of the consciousness of Knox-manquée Lily Hayes, her sort-of boyfriend Sebastien, her father, and Eduardo Campos, the official prosecuting her case. All of them are thoroughly introspective, fully convinced of their own insights into their own motives, and thoroughly, tragically deluded. But—and this is the book’s neat trick, its welcome departure from the norm of American “literary fiction”: their delusions are never that they misapprehend something essential about their own character, that they believe themselves to be altruists, say, when they’re really egoists; that they’ve convinced themselves they’re doing good when in fact they’re just reenacting some evil done to them long ago.
Instead, they keep circling a core of self that isn’t there; they’re not orbiting a star, but a black hole, a well so deep and dense that it approximates solidity through a kind of nonexistence. They’re all reference and no referent; a set of contingencies reflecting only each other. Now, there are some predictable bits; the effect isn’t absolute. Lily and her family are burdened by the loss of an earlier child and sibling; Eduardo, the prosecutor is confounded by a fickle, disastrous marriage. And still, the pervading sadness in Andrew and Maureen Hayes, Lily’s divorced parents, feeds mostly on itself, even as they both—both of them intellectuals—cast back in hopeless hopefulness to the ur-tragedy of losing a child, while Eduardo’s dogged, moralistic pursuit of Lily in the murder case wills itself into a parallel with the flights of Eduardo’s wife rather than being naturally generated by them. Lily is the most obscure of all of them, and we can believe that she both did and did not murder that girl; that if she didn’t, she might have; that if she verifiably did, she might not.
This is a kind of fiction I wish we got more of: subversively resistant to the idea that human beings are a quantity to be known. In it, we are utterly alien to ourselves, and our lives aren’t hemmed in by the conventions of narrative and psychology, but keep messily, insistently transgressing them.