by Louis Begley
Knopf, 256 pp, $23.00
reviewed by Russell Brandom
Shipwreck is a deceptively simple novel, and it relishes in the fact that it is telling a very familiar story. It begins with an unknown “I” sitting in a café called, self-consciously, L’Entre Deux Mondes. He is joined, at random, by the novel’s protagonist and ostensible narrator, Oliver North, who then proceeds to tell him the story of the past several years of his life. North is himself a novelist enjoying great success. Praised by critics, renowned enough to be gossip-worthy and periodically rewarded with various literary prizes, North finds himself dissatisfied with his own body of work: “They all belonged to the same dreary breed of unneeded books. Novels that are not embarrassingly bad but lead you to wonder why the author had bothered.”
Rendered temporarily unable to write, North has an affair with a French journalist named Léa. North has no intention of leaving his wife, Lydia: Léa is only an adventure. But North continues seeing her throughout his time in Paris, and soon is caught between the two women. He plans a course of action as only a writer can, musing, “It seemed to me, as I thought about Lydia, that I had been split in two. One half was Lydia’s husband, whose limitless and unreserved love for her was like a vital organ of his body. The other was an unserious man, besotted by this girl’s body and what she was willing to do with it, and, to be just, by her startling charm. Why couldn’t these men co-exist, I asked myself, so long as I kept them apart?”
Of course, it is painfully clear to us that he cannot keep them apart. As the plot progresses, the characters become more archetypal and the narrator more frantic. The novel takes on a portentous tone, setting up North’s inevitable decline. The intensity of North’s desperation, Léa’s flightiness, and Lydia’s unlimited trust all lead us to expect a monumental finish, but the ending is so convoluted that it is difficult to reconcile it with the preceding buildup.