Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. — Dawn Raffel
Samuel Ligon’s exquisitely risky new novel begins with a collision. A woman named Cynthia narrates the first page, recalling her ride through a treacherous mist on the back of a motorcycle. The driver is Kyle, her lifelong friend and covert lover. Complicating matters, Cynthia is secretly pregnant—just barely—with a child whose father is her on-and-off boyfriend, Mark. The moment of impact sparks a kind of omniscient ecstasy: “I was weightless, flying, the anticipation of landing lifting me into this bright, raw awareness,” Cynthia says. In that moment she flashes on the name of her unborn child: “the beautiful baby I wrapped myself around as we flew.”
On the second page, Kyle recalls those same few instants:
“One minute we’re grounded in this gauzy white mist, the next minute we’re weightless, up, coming down…I became aware of my heartbeat in my ears, muddy and monotonous, and then I was outside of myself and frantic, listening as hard as I could—to paramedics shouting, to tires hissing and the sound of the ocean over the berm, to a train’s whistle across South Oyster Bay. But I couldn’t hear Cynthia anymore, anywhere.”
Cynthia and Kyle (along with the unborn baby, Isabelle) are dead. Turns out that what we’ve been reading are crystalline memories of the deceased. As an opening, it’s a high-wire act without a net, fraught with emotional, philosophical, and artistic jeopardy. One false move could plunge the narrative into mawkish pop sentimentality (characters looking down from heaven, anyone?) while playing it affectlessly safe would be fatally arid. Ligon maintains superb control, a feat that begs a second million-dollar question: Where does one go from here? How to evade the graveyard of novels that open astonishingly and then, the author having exhausted himself, descend into amateur psychology and other hallmarks of predictable lit (you know, that moment when everything could’ve gone right….).
Ligon never lets the intellectual energy flag; he keeps the collisions coming from every direction. The first-person narrative races between a dozen or so characters, living and dead, each speaking for only a page or two, as we start to understand not only what led up to the motorcycle accident but also how it reverberates into the future. In an extraordinary act of creative empathy, Ligon breathes life into Cynthia (privileged and lost), Mark (idealistic and emotionally bruised), Kyle (an artist with a generous, conflicted heart) and his cheated-on girlfriend Nikki (a beautiful young woman with a teenage daughter and a violent past). But oh, how the reviewer’s parentheticals reduce these label-resistant characters. Parents and exes have their say—even poor, doomed Isabelle has a word—creating a verbal kaleidoscope, a jagged and fluid illumination of death and misconnection.
The yearnings and compulsions leading to Cynthia, Kyle, and Isabelle’s deaths could, of their own, sustain a novel. Ligon renders the betrayed survivors’ rage and confusion with eerie intimacy. When Mark goes back to Cynthia’s apartment, he can’t bear to listen to the messages blinking on her answering machine “because checking them would mean she was never coming back.” Later, he forces himself to hear Kyle’s recorded voice (“Hey, baby….”), then continues to listen to the tape after slamming a potted plant to the floor:
“Another message came on the machine and for a minute I couldn’t tell if it was me or the caller breathing so hard, and then I knew it was him again—his ragged, raspy breathing—maybe dead now, somehow calling from deathland,” Mark says. “But as I made my way to the kitchen, I heard myself saying her name on the machine, my electronic voice so muted and small, as if a pallet of bricks was sitting on my chest.” This was the call he had made right after her death, longing to hear her voice on tape, leaving a message consisting only of her name. “Or maybe,” Mark says, “it was me from the future, somehow calling from deathland.”
The nervy juxtaposition of the living, the dead, and the living past, accrues to the sense that everything happens—at least on some level—simultaneously, and part of what’s here is a deep meditation on ever-present loss. After Mark understands that Cynthia was pregnant, he says, “I sat in traffic surrounded by people going to work, imagining Cynthia and Kyle and the baby ghost floating through space, weightless, holding hands, never growing older, and I wondered what age would be ideal for death if that’s how you’d spend eternity—floating through space like an amoeba on the ocean.” But Ligon’s genius is to rip us away from moody brooding by layering in a page-turning plot, giving the trio who died an endangered counterpoint in Mark and Nikki, and Nikki’s daughter, Alina.
Unlike the manicured company in which she finds herself, Nikki has a bloody past. As a pregnant teenage runaway, she accidentally killed Alina’s rapacious, drug-fueled father, Cash, in drunken self-defense. Nikki fled Texas, and no one suspected her. More than a dozen years later, Kyle had become a father-figure to her daughter. But just before the crash that killed Kyle, Nikki began receiving harrowing phone calls from someone who sounded alarmingly like dead lover #1.
Burke is Cash’s brother. We learn, through his fevered narration, that he’d taken the fall for his sibling in a drug bust and was stewing in prison for the entire duration of Cash and Nikki’s relationship. Upon his release, having sacrificed fifteen years of his life for his little brother, only to have that brother snuffed out, he fixated on long-ago photos of Nikki. She had to be dead, he reckoned, killed by whoever murdered Cash (bumbling drug thugs, likely). When he discovers that she is still alive, with a home on Long Island, New York, his thoughts turn poisonous.
Burke is crazy and canny, with nothing to lose, which makes him a perfect, malevolent storm. From his first phone call to a startled Nikki, he knows she is lying about a few things—for instance, her improvised statement that she had already moved and was living in Oak Bluff, Illinois, the night Cash died. “I didn’t want to believe she done it and didn’t believe it,” Burke says, “but the suspicion would creep up on me, the guiding hand turning my head to something I didn’t want to look at, things she said or how she said them, like the fact that there wasn’t no Oak Bluff, Illinois, at least not according to Rand McNally, though maybe I heard it wrong, because I knew she loved him and would love me too, especially with him gone and me the person most like him in the world. But then it seemed like she just wanted to push me away—maybe because she was still so hurt, I couldn’t tell. And I didn’t know how to test it without pushing her further, which I didn’t want to do. She was all I had and wanted in the world.”
In subsequent phone calls, a panicked Nikki offers $10,000, then $20,000 she doesn’t have in order to get Burke to leave her alone; he ups the ante to $50,000. Convinced by now of her guilt, he schemes to retrieve the payout and then exact fantastic revenge. Soon Nikki has grief-addled Mark enmeshed in her desperate quest for the blackmail money. Most urgently, she wants to protect Alina, who knows nothing about her father or her mother’s past.
It’s not too much of a spoiler to say the story turns brutal, as Burke, Mark, and Nikki converge at the edge of madness, and Alina becomes a target. But Ligon keeps twisting events in unexpected ways. It’s rare to find a hair-trigger plot in a novel this elegant; you could call it a literary thriller, if that term hadn’t lost credibility by being slapped all over books that are neither literary nor thrilling.
Ligon, it’s worth noting, is equally gifted as a short story writer, with a formally inventive collection, Wonderland, also out this year. He is also the author of a well-received previous novel, Safe in Heaven Dead, and first collection, Drift and Swerve. A writer’s obsessions are portable—beyond that, inescapable—and his are desire and peril, tinted noir. Ligon teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University, edits the journal Willow Springs and is the creative director of the Port Townsend Writers Conference—a literary hyphenate whose bio lists him as “writer, editor, talk show host, teacher, goat and donkey enthusiast.” He just can’t help but flip you a trippy wildcard, as if to say, whatever you were thinking, think again.
Among the Dead and Dreaming is a book to read and re-read—once because you need to know what happens, a second time because you want to linger over particular passages, and then perhaps a third time, to try to figure out how he pulled the whole thing off. As with any book worth studying, you’ll never fully know.
In Ligon’s world, every emotion and impulse shimmers with its opposite, every moment is saturated with the consciousness of others, and every boundary is subject to erasure—as when Mark says of Cynthia, “Her presence was everywhere and then her absence, and then her presence again, so that her presence and absence felt like the same thing.”
Perhaps it’s nascent Isabelle, never to be born, who says it best in the one word ever allotted to her: Oh.
Dawn Raffel’s previous books are two story collections — Further Adventures in the Restless Universe and In the Year of Long Division — and a novel, Carrying the Body. She is the books editor at Reader’s Digest and the editor of The Literarian, the online journal of the Center for Fiction in New York.