What Can We Steal From Christopher Coake’s You Came Back?

Title of Work and its Form: You Came Back, novel
Author: Christopher Coake
Where the Work Can Be Found: At any of the fine independent booksellers in your area.  If they don’t have it in stock, they can likely order it for you.  The novel is also available at Amazon.

Bonus: Mr. Coake makes his home in Nevada.  Here‘s what The Nevada Review thought of the novel!

Element of Craft We’re Stealing:  Narrative Structure

Discussion:
Several years after the death of his young child and the subsequent dissolution of his marriage, Mark Fife thinks he has worked through the trauma and is living a new life.  His relationship with first wife Chloe has reached a happy truce and he’s even going to propose to Allison, his loving and understanding girlfriend.  This peace is shattered in the first line of the book: “Mark Fife was being watched.”  His old life intrudes in the form of Connie Pelham, the new owner of the home he shared with Chloe and Brendan, the son who died as the result of a terrible accident.  Through the course of the book, Mark learns that he has not yet achieved catharsis and that true peace comes not through purging sadness, but by absorbing it.

“Catharsis” is a concept that comes to us from Aristotle; when we read sad stories, we are purging our negative emotions.  We’re also coming to terms with our subconscious fears through the course of witnessing someone else’s nightmare made real.  Although I’ve never been a parent, I’m guessing that those who do have children have a niggling fear—even if it’s in the back of their minds—that something terrible will happen to the offspring they love so dearly.

In his book, Coake makes Mark’s pain frighteningly real by making the misfortune a complicated one.  In lesser stories, the situation and the characters’ reactions to it are far more simplistic.  I’m looking at you, Nicholas Sparks.  Many folks love the catharsis they earn from reading or watching the film version of The Notebook.  And why not?  The story is totally sad.  It’s also terribly simple.  Yes, James Garner’s character is sad because Gena Rowlands’ character is dying of advanced Alzheimer’s and doesn’t remember him.  Sad sad sad.  Why?  Because we all have a fear that the person we love the most will disappear, whether gradually or in one short, sharp shock.  The dramatic problem with these kinds of stories is the lack of depth and complication.  Real life is messy.  Our motivations are seldom clear, even to ourselves.  We tell ourselves the “vital lie” to get through the day—and we usually believe them.  Coake allows us to see the brutal truths of Mark’s situation: he was drinking when Brendan had the accident…his last words to his son were unkind…Brendan, like his father, was not the kind of child who was on the easy track in life…Mark’s lack of self-reflection has put him in a position to cause his new girlfriend great pain.  Coake’s story is powerful because he puts his characters through the same process that we all must endure to be truly whole: an honest assessment of our faults and the harm we do to the people we promise to protect.

The psychological process of closure is often cast in a simple manner.  The character decides what he or she must do to feel better and then does it and then has a happy ending.  Coake chooses the longer (and ultimately more fulfilling) road by eliminating the easy ways out of Mark’s situation.  I don’t want to reveal too much of the narrative, but the book’s jacket and its summary make it clear that Connie Pelham jolts Mark with the claim that Brendan’s ghost is haunting what was once his home.  In a lesser story, the resolution would be simple.  Mark and his ex-wife would simply hire a medium and usher Brendan’s spirit to the next world.  It doesn’t require any spoilers to tell you that Coake throws Mark and Chloe a few curveballs.  This choice lends the book verisimilitude: the appearance and feeling of reality.  Think of a breakup you suffered with a boyfriend, girlfriend or spouse.  The breakup was not caused solely by the fact that you kept leaving wet towels on the bed or because they slept with a fellow sales rep at work.  Unfortunately, there’s a thick web of causes, all of which inexorably led to the terrible split.

What Should We Steal?

  • Give your characters the same complicated psychology and life situations real people have.  Our lives are not dictated by a linear A then B then C then D.  There are countless forces, internal and external, that shape the circuitous paths of our lives.  There are downsides to this approach: you often need to write more and think more deeply about your characters…but is this really a bad thing?
  • Plumb the depths of your own heart to help your reader achieve catharsis.  Writers have a number of responsibilities to the reader and this is one of them.  None of us will ever have complete understanding of self.  However, if we ask the unpleasant questions about ourselves and the people we know, then we’ll develop the greater empathy we need to create powerful characters.
  • Have the courage to avoid simplicity.  You Came Back does not lay out a simple plan for Mark.  As a result of Coake’s hard work, the book is (for lack of a better word) absolutely haunting.

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