The things we carry: Michelle Berry examines the confluence of personal and geopolitical trauma in Everything Turns Away

Everything Turns Away is a 9/11 novel. Everything Turns Away is not a 9/11 novel.

These two apparently contradictory assessments are put into conflict in Michelle Berry’s sixth full-length fiction, which takes place in the hours preceding the terrorist attacks on New York City’s World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001, and in the days and weeks following. Nominally a domestic thriller, the novel follows two couples living in Toronto. On the night of September 10, Helen, a university professor, and her videographer husband, Allan, attend a drunken dinner party at the home of their friends, Paul, a lawyer, and Sophie. In the fallout from their debaucherous revelry, Helen tosses their babysitter, Lindsay, out of the house after discovering she has had her boyfriend over to visit (and to slip her drugs), while Paul stumbles upon the aftermath of a particularly brutal murder at a neighbour’s house. All of this takes place before the first plane hits the north tower at 8:46 a.m. on Tuesday, September 11.

Berry employs a series of shifting narrative perspectives to gradually unveil the characters’ interlocking stories and their various points of intersection. The novel’s free indirect discourse allows Berry smoothly to dip in and out of her four main characters’ heads and cleanly illustrate the fissures in each marriage. These include Spohie’s nascent resentment at having to take care of Paul, who in the wake of his discovery of the neighbourhood murder scene develops back pain that renders him immobile. Once he recovers from his (possibly psychosomatic) agony, he repays his wife’s solicitousness by embarking on an affair with the sister of the murdered man.

Helen, meanwhile, is wracked with guilt over allowing Lindsay to walk home alone after midnight through the streets of downtown Toronto. She blames herself for the teenager’s disappearance and her sense of self-apporbation exacerbates the fault lines between her and Allan. Helen and Sophie are distorted mirrors of one another: both are new mothers of three-month-old daughters. Where Sophie is enduring sleepless nights of breastfeeding while spending her days dealing with her invalid husband and alcoholic parents, Helen employs a nanny and can’t breastfeed due to her new implants (which she received the summer after giving birth).

Having left Helen to walk home alone after the party so that he might return on foot to retrieve their car (which they were apparently too drunk to remember having driven over in the first place), Allan spies Sophie through their lighted living room window; she is naked in the process of a failed seduction of her husband. Fearing detection, Allen flees by climbing the neighbouring fence. When he emerges from his embarrassing predicament, he notices a man and a dog, whom he had seen earlier; the man is cleaning something off his hands, and Allan convinces himself it is the blood of the murder victim.

The man with the dog – a Labradoodle named Gibson (after film star Mel) – is a sixtyish widower librarian who winds up giving refuge to the distraught babysitter after he discovers her strung out in a local park. (A short prologue has informed us that Lindsay has been in the murder house, though the key details remain mysterious until the novel’s climactic stages.)

This internecine plot is complicated and it is to Berry’s credit that she manages to keep all the novel’s plates spinning briskly without any of them crashing to the ground. The dog walker, whose sections are cast in the tricky mode of second-person narration – “You see in the newspaper that the incidence of bedbugs in fancy hotels has skyrocketed” – acts as a kind of connective tissue for the novel’s disparate parts. Various characters encounter him at a relative distance throughout the course of the story; as Allan’s 9/11-induced paranoia grows, he becomes convinced that the dog walker is the one responsible for the horrible killing and begins surreptitiously trailing him in his car.

The dog walker refers at one point to the movie Short Cuts (though he gets the specifics wrong: the “dead prostitute stuffed into the box spring in a hotel” may refer to the Robert Rodriguez section in the relatively contemporaneous film Four Rooms). It’s a useful comparison; Robert Altman’s adaptation of several Raymond Carver stories features a similarly overlapping structure, with various characters weaving in and out of each others’ narratives and an ongoing shifting of focus from one individual to the next. In her use of spare language and short, declarative sentences, Berry also demonstrates an affinity for Carver’s minimalist prose style.

Each of the characters in the novel suffers from a sense of powerlessness in the face of external events, a predicament that is heightened by the terrorist attacks of 9/11. The use of this as a backdrop chimes with national security specialist Spencer Ackerman’s argument in Reign of Terror that the the al-Qaeda orchestrated atrocity was the defining incident in our era, from which every aspect of our current political polarization and reactionary governmental attitudes can be traced. That said, so much has happened in the interim – including increasing suspicion between left and right wings stoked by online disinformation and galloping radicalization, not to mention U.S. led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan – that leaning back on 9/11 to shade in elements of personal anger, distrust, and violence risks the novel appearing frozen in amber.

In her acknowledgements, Berry notes that she first wrote the novel in 2006, but was unable to place it due to a lack of interest on the part of publishers around books dealing with the 9/11 attacks. Two decades on, the world has lived through four years of the Trump presidency and almost two years of a devastating global pandemic. An entire generation too young to have first-hand memories of 9/11 has come of age since. When so many contemporaneous events offer as much, if not more, resonance for the novel’s domestic story elements, the danger is that the 9/11 material comes off as nothing more than a gimmick. While Berry is too good a writer to allow this to happen, there is still the sense that Everything Turns Away does not need its backdrop of September 11, 2001, to tell its story of marital discord and paranoia.

UPDATE November 29, 7:35 p.m. An earlier version of this post misidentified the writer/director of the episode in Four Rooms involving the prostitute in the box spring. It was Robert Rodriguez, not Quentin Tarantino.

The things we carry: Michelle Berry examines the confluence of personal and geopolitical trauma in Everything Turns Away
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