In the current issue of the Believer magazine, there's an essay called "The Chaos Machine," co-written by author Charles Baxter and his son Daniel. The elder Baxter narrates a story about picking his son up from college and the car trip that followed. Daniel provides footnotes to his dad's reportage, adding refutations, clarifications, corrections. In the center of this sweet and normal-sounding story is a very strange little anecdote. At birth, Daniel Baxter was named Nathaniel. During a turbulent toddlerhood, as soon as the boy was capable of articulating a preference, he began insisting that he was not Nathaniel. He wanted to be called Daniel instead. Refreshingly, his parents took his request seriously. At age four, his name was legally changed. Nathaniel became Daniel and has remained so ever since. In his footnote, Daniel Baxter grumbles a little bit. "I'm not in a rush to let people know about the name switch, but I suppose this essay would be incomplete if this were omitted."
Charles Baxter's new novel, The Soul Thief, is about identity and loss of it, about taking on new lives and jettisoning old ones (or trying to.) It's not a coincidence, then, when you hear the name that the book's narrator chooses for himself. "I must turn myself into a 'he' and give myself a bland Anglo-Saxon Protestant name," says the novel's opening chapter. "Here it is: 'Nathaniel.' So that is who I am: Nathaniel Mason. He once said that the name Nathaniel was cursed, and that my imagination had been poisoned at its source by what people had called me."
The "he" (we presume) is Jerome Coolberg, Nathaniel's college classmate, a charming, bullshitting, insufferable know-it-all who Nathaniel comes to blame for the collapse of his own life. This is Buffalo, New York, the 1970s, mid-winter. It's difficult to conceive of a bleaker time and place. The first time Nathaniel runs across Coolberg, he is holding court at a party, enthralling the guests with his speechifying. A friend warns Nathaniel to keep his distance. "He's in some kind of Artaudian condition where all the ideas are unoriginated and unsourced; that's how he can claim anybody else's ideas as his own. Really all he wants to do is acquire everyone's inner life. I'd use the word 'soul' but I don't believe in souls."
For the first couple conversations, I wondered whether the diction wasn't a little high-flown for a bunch of Buffalonians in their twenties. But it works. It works because the characters are deadly serious grad students, playing intellectual. They talk that way self-consciously, purposely trying to impress each other and convince themselves that they contain something other than hot air. Nathaniel just sees Coolberg as an annoyance at first, not a danger, despite the warning. He meets a girl named Theresa, flirts heavily, does his best to seduce her and eventually does, with her enthusiastic help. Nathaniel also cooks for the poor at a soup kitchen alongside Jamie, a tough, blond, purported lesbian who he finds deeply erotic.
Coolberg keeps reappearing. Unsettling events continue to take place. Nathaniel catches a burglar rummaging through his meager belongings. He only steals some clothing, which Coolberg is later seen wearing. Coolberg appropriates parts of Nathaniel's life story as well, taking his past and passing it off as his own. How did Coolberg learn all of this, anyway? Eventually, perhaps inevitably, Coolberg steals Nathaniel's girl, too. Nathaniel falls further and further down the rabbit hole, unable to get a grip on reality. Then, in the second half, the book fast-forwards several decades in time. Nathaniel, now a married father, gets a call from his old college buddy, Jerome begins to spill out. At this point, the reader starts to realize that everything that's been said so far might not be the truth. In fact, we may not even know who's actually telling the story.
When I got to the end of The Soul Thief, I wanted to immediately go back to page one and read it a second time, to see if I could figure out what the hell just happened to me. The only other book that's had that kind of effect (in a GOOD way) is Paul Auster's New York Trilogy. Charles Baxter (as I've noted before) is one of those writers who is not a household name, but who has a towering reputation in the world of writers, because he can do things that don't seem possible. The Soul Thief could be called metafiction, or postmodern, because of the way it messes with the reader's head. It raises questions of authorship. It uses unsourced, appropriated dialogue from other books and movies. It ends in the same place it starts, like a snake eating its own tail.
The Soul Thief pulls you out of the "world" of the story and draws attention to the way the story is being told. If it wasn't Charles Baxter doing this, it could be showy, or annoying. I think that some writers, especially young ones, rely on po-mo trickery to distract from the lack of a plot or strong characters. Thankfully, Baxter knows it's not enough to just play with the conventions of narrative if you can't write a heart-stoppingly good STORY in the first place. And he can. The Soul Thief is heart-stoppingly good, by any measure.