The nature of change dictates that the person we become often looks back on the person we were with bewilderment. Old decisions, habits, and affinities can be completely baffling to our new incarnation; memories may even be recalled from a bird’s eye view as though someone else were living our life.
But what happens to the people left behind? How do they see themselves as they watch us separate from the reality we had defined together? This is one of the key questions posed by Robert Steiner’s Negative Space, in which an unnamed man listens to his wife confess her infidelity and love of another man over the course of one night. While her confession forms the frame of the book, the majority of the novel passes inside of the narrator’s mind as he questions the nature of self and want as he experiences the end of his marriage.
In seemingly simple yet profoundly economic prose, Steiner showcases a man grappling with loss. Sentences such as “My wife could not believe in the reality of her new love if she did not believe in the unreality of the old,” deftly maneuver us through the narrator’s obsessive attempt to define the shapelessness of grief.
As his wife’s confession unfolds, the narrator finds himself eroticizing her in the face of her infidelity and the secret life she’s been conducting for months, or even years. As she describes her sexual and emotional life with her new partner, the narrator immerses himself in obsessive questioning, circling around the key question of whether, as it ends, every relationship is defined only as a prelude to its conclusion. And, as the narrator wonders, if his whole life has previously seemed a preface to their marriage, is his identity not now collapsed in the face of her departure?
It’s a question we all deal with on some level as our lives change, and relationships shift and disappear. With love, more than anything we have to reduce years of lives together to one key conclusion about our incompatibility in order to digest, label, and move on.
Yet our narrator cannot, at this moment, agree. He is staring down the face of misery and loss, knowing, as the title suggests, that his future will hereafter be defined more by his wife’s absence than anything else. In an especially poignant phrase, the narrator states: “The absence of fresh flowers on our dining table will recall to me the absence of my wife, I thought, so that I do not own a dining table without flowers so much as a dining table whose flowers are missing.” And it is solely he who will be trapped in her absence, as her new life with her new lover will be defined by their joint future rather than her past. So our narrator is trapped in his love, its definitions and stasis in its death; trapped as the forgotten side plot in his wife’s continuing narrative.
Negative Space is a sad but beautifully told tale. For anyone who has experienced the loss of love, it is an affecting and cathartic read that leaves you stinging, much like a cauterized wound.