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The Return of the Novel of Love

Katie Kitamura’s novel 'A Separation' breathes new life into the theme of marital breakdown.

Lee Tracey / Getty Images

Katie Kitamura’s third novel, A Separation, is about the end of a marriage between two wealthy white people, both of whom are writers. On its face, this premise sounds like a joke about clichés of the literary novel. The easiest way to make fun of an MFA student is to depict someone who has never been married, writing about the breakdown of a rich middle-aged couple’s marriage. And little reveals the insularity of novelists’ social backgrounds than the insistence on writing about people with their same unlikely job, as though being an author were some everyman profession. If anything at all shouldn’t still work, it’s both of these premises.

A SEPARATION by Katie Kitamura
Riverhead Books, 240 pp., $25.00

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, novels chronicling the failure of marriages were briefly  revolutionary, because of the way they bent both narrative and social conventions. For centuries previous, any story that wasn’t a tragedy ended in marriage. Central characters found each and vanished into one another like the point in a painting where the lines connect at the horizon. The novels of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, force their protagonists past the false harmonic ending of marriage and into the skin of continuance, the flesh and bone of ongoing routine. In the twentieth-century, particularly, the novel broke apart the marriage plot at the same as society was taking apart the ideas of marriage as permanent and necessarily good. The novel of adultery and divorce began to replace the novel of love. Marriage was no longer either an inevitability or a panacea. It no longer ended the story.

In The End of The Novel of Love, Vivian Gornick wrote about how the same changes that brought about the novel’s obsession with the breakdown of marriage also quickly ushered marriage out of relevance as a subject. Marriage is now only one potential event in a life of many equally weighted potential events, and, if a marriage fails, it is only an individual, not a societal or universal, failure. The fallibility of marriage is a story we already know. We have already faced the breakdown of this particular scaffolding, seen its dismantling effect change on the world. Love, while still the novel’s most popular subject, seemed a parochial lens on the human condition, an airless way of looking at the world, offering diminished returns.

That the married couples in these novels are often white, usually heterosexual, and almost invariably middle or upper middle class is no coincidence. The institution of marriage has traditionally brought rewards to only a certain segment of people; to see marriage as a goal and its breakdown as a tragedy only elevates the goals and tragedies of these same people, defining human experience by a narrow example and leaving the rest of us fragmented, stuck in the shadows, at best, offered imitations of this supposedly central life experience. To understand the breakdown of marriage as a grand loss is to say that those who were never offered a place within the marriage plot in the first place were never truly whole.

But Kitamura knows what she’s doing better than these themes might suggest. She chooses to engage the themes in A Separation precisely because they are at the heart of the idea of the literary novel; she approaches them with full knowledge of both their weight and their diminishing relevance. The narrator understands herself to be in a story about the end of a marriage, and situates herself consciously within the well-mannered navel-gazing interiority of the twentieth century novel. 

A British translator who serves as the story’s first-person narrator (her name is never given) and her husband, an author of popular nonfiction books, have separated but not yet divorced. At the urging of his mother, who does not know about their separation, the wife, our narrator, goes to track down her estranged husband, who has disappeared in Greece. She arrives at a grand, mysterious hotel, the kind of place where people have their honeymoons, making it a perfectly ironic location for the end of her marriage. She makes up her mind that, once she locates her husband, she will tell him she wants a divorce, and, she turns over and over the reasons for and the meaning of their marriage’s failure. What unfolds, instead, is a detective story. In a high-end hotel in an exotic location, an outsider arrives and finds herself enmeshed in a violent mystery that she must now solve by observing her surroundings.

By pairing these two genres, Kitamura demonstrates that love is itself an investigation, an attempt to get to answers of another human individual as though they were a crime scene. When we are betrayed, when love breaks apart, we all become amateur Sherlock Holmeses, seeking out meaning in every gesture and detail, seizing on any crumb of information as a clue to what we have lost. At the end of any intimate relationship, part of what we lose is the access to answers—the former lover once is again unknown, inaccessible. In the absence of love, the betrayed partner becomes a detective, trying to draw answers out of a dead love, the same way a forensic specialist tries to draw answers out of a dead body, trying to make what is already gone and silent wake back and speak from beyond the grave.

In Kitamura’s novel, the narrator is motivated by her desire to make sense of a situation in the same way a novelist might be motivated to tell a story—our protagonist is constantly writing her surroundings. Struggling to understand each person she encounters, she invariably imagines they have something to do with her marriage, and seems never to consider that other people might not be part of her and her husband’s story at all. There is barely any quoted dialogue in the whole novel. Rather, the narrator tells us what people are saying and what they mean by it, exerting a novelist’s absolute control on the world and the people around her. As the book progresses, it becomes clear that her point of view is highly unreliable and deeply self-interested; in order to sculpt her situation into a classic novel of a failed marriage, she refuses to let either her surroundings or the people she meets speak for themselves, refuses to offer any space for a story other than the one on which she has already decided.

We wish that the end of love would conclude with the kind of explanatory monologue a detective offers after having cracked the case—here is how all those clues added up together, here is how everything meant something. But love doesn’t do that; things end senselessly, and we remain as unknowable to one another as we always were. Marriage is neither a crucible nor an achievement, and its end offers neither tragedy nor clarity.

Novels return to love in the same way that conversations return again and again to love, the ways that we lapse out of talking about ideas into talking about people, the way that all discourse, however noble it begins, is tugged back toward the personal. It’s the seduction of pop music and gossip, the things that we reach for without having to try to reach for them, what we would rather be talking about when we’re not talking about love. Many characters in such novels bemoan the fact that, in trying to love one another, they have forgotten to make anything else of their lives—having poured the work of their lives into the mystery of another person, they have forgotten to create reserves of meaning in the world outside of that person’s existence.

The novel of love suffers and attracts in much the same way—it endeavors to build something more original, more lasting, more noble, but in the end it slips back into the absolute frivolity and irrational urgency of individual love. People will always want to both write and read about love. What is perhaps most revealing, therefore, is art that examines the limitations of that very impulse, where it warps reality and silences anyone who doesn’t line up with the story being told.

Kitamura’s protagonist wants to make a twentieth century marriage novel out of her situation, but she isn’t able to do so. All she is left with is fragments; neither marriage nor the end of marriage has offered her true narrative coherence. Both systems fail to deliver; marriage is a limited concern in the present day world. From within the narrow confines of the topic, Kitamura’s novel examines the uselessness of this plot, of marriage as a failed form of translation. The ultimate subject here is futility. Not the futility of marriage as an enterprise—we know that already—but the futility of its narrative examination. At the end of this detective novel, the detective leaves us with no answers at all.