The Presence of Absence
Max Little is dying and wants to leave behind something of his life. A young writer of novels, novellas, and short stories, Max grew up in Wales, is of Pakistani descent, and now reclines in a New York hospital bed, in full acceptance of his terminal illness.
Not wanting to beg the reader’s pity, Max does what he does best by writing, and begins his straightforward narrative by marveling at the magic between reader and writer: “You do realize that by turning the page you’ve decided to follow a complete stranger down a possibly meaningless path?” he says. “Stories lead us behind the curtain of somebody else’s life into the deepest chambers of our own.” Max considers that by the time the reader puts eyes to his words, he, himself, might be absent. “None of that matters,” he assures, “because our lives are braided here and now by this sentence.” Seemingly delighted to embellish his point, Max continues, “For instance, I’m writing this in the present, and you’re reading it in the present. Except there is a gulf of time between us. I might even be dead. Yet here I am.”
In Simon Van Booy’s extraordinary novel, The Presence of Absence, each well-wrought sentence builds upon the next, taking us deeper into Max Little’s life with staggering lucidity. The first part of the story is constructed in descending numerical chapters that decline with a sense of fatalism as the narrator reconstructs his life’s highpoints interspersed with uncanny, existential observations on the business of life, death, and dying. Max confesses his mind’s innerworkings with adroit ease. “Do people ever walk around their homes, wondering which room they will die in? Whether it will be a Wednesday night or Saturday morning at the table with toast and coffee?” And “What would happen to things like knives and forks once I was gone. Would my wife keep them?”
At the center of Max Little’s concern is his wife, Hadley, and the reader is taken to their first meeting even as Max shares his ruminations on how to best tell Hadley he is dying. Pondering his plight alone on a beach, he arrives at a profound spiritual truth, when he comes to consider himself in the third person. Max posits, “When you nurture the ability to witness your life in the third person, in extremis, or through prayer or meditation, there is an unavoidable shift in consciousness as you realize that who you are is not simply how you feel—but a presence beyond desire of any sort.”
Jeremy Abrams’s mother is dying. He comes into Max’s life through the coincidence of their shared New York therapist. The men bond over the similarities in their life circumstances, and as their friendship grows, it is Jeremy who suggests that Max begin keeping the journal the reader now holds in their hands. Max writes, “You might wonder what dying people look forward to. Being visited, yes, but also being left alone—though that takes a lot of practice, managing thoughts . . . I also look forward to reassuring people it’s okay this is happening.”
In The Presence of Absence, Part Two is theatrically introduced as a quick, black scene change. The section brilliantly holds the subheading, Sotto Voce. The third person story moves forward eight years in time, and fittingly alternates between breathtaking poetry, poignant one-liners, and what miraculously transpires from the connections formed in Max Little’s absence. An insight comes at the hands of one such connection, who stands at a sink washing cups in a basin and thinks, “Like the cups draining on a tea towel, absence has a practical value in how it shapes presence.”
A mind-bending, affecting story that breaks the heart open with startling clarity, this book makes the reader want to take pen in hand to underline The Presence of Absences’ passages. That author Simon Van Booy has taken a universal subject most prefer to shy away from and creatively crafted an accessible work of high art is an unparalleled literary feat. The deft use of language in this tour de force fulfills its own mission when Van Booy summarizes, “Language is a map leading to a place not on the map.”