Research Notes · 09/30/2016

The Remnants

Our Research Notes series invites authors to describe their process for a recent book, with “research” defined as broadly as they like. This week, Robert Hill writes about The Remnants from Forest Avenue Press.

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An Anti-Contemporary Novel That’s Not Totally About Sex

You know those novels in which the protagonist is a former city-dwelling book editor whose once gad-about days as a rising star amongst a galaxy of rising stars have been replaced, by choice — always by choice — by the earthbound fulfillment of children and a marriage of (assumed) equals and saving local wetlands and surfing the web for fair-trade shoes from the built-in office nook of her suburban uber-kitchen, who when she’s not carpooling her daughter’s soccer team or her son’s ballet corps (they’re very anti gender-identifying) in the hybrid Volvo or worrying about the toxic levels of cadmium in the air near her children’s Steiner school, thinks back to her junior year at college when she went to study in Italy, but instead of boning up on Petrarch and Boccaccio like her parents thought they were paying for her to do, she was instead learning the ins and outs of sloppy, sweaty, hungry Kamasutran sex with her istruttore, Renaldo (ten years older and all one hundred positions more experienced), and now, even as she wrestles with defying her salt-of-the-earth husband, Jonathan, the System’s Configuration Analyst, and running in the local elections for Commissioner of Wetlands, District 3, which would take her away from home and hearth and Jonathan’s dinner on the table one friggin’ night a month, that’s it, she wonders, over a chilled ’98 Chardonnay at her recently-divorced best friend Chloe’s condo, if she contacted Renaldo now after so many years, would he still want to do the G-Force Position with her in the passenger seat of his ’76 Fiat Spider, and if so, would it be enough to open her heart to the woman she once thought she wanted to be?

You know — those novels?

Some of them are really good. They address contemporary issues while not being overly didactic. You can identify with the emotional turmoil. And because they are often about sex, or the lack of sex people are having, the sex scenes, when they happen — illicitly, of course — have a steamy, gotta-re-adjust-yourself-ness to them that makes you feel good about your own forgotten dreams. And when you’ve come to the end of the story, you feel like you’ve just had a super weekend with a close friend in a two-bedroom Airbnb at the coast and shared your deepest darkest existential dilemmas and come out the other side a new you — confident that you’re not the only one toiling in a life you thought you wanted but came to find was not your mother’s cup of Lipton, and that even though you maybe should have studied economics at the University of Pennsylvania like your sister did and not gone to Berkeley and been yet another wandering nomad in the desert of Liberal Arts, you and others like you (fictional and otherwise) have dreams — lovely, lost, buried dreams — that will one day make a great novel, which you’re sure you’ll write, and of course, it’ll be a best seller, and be made into a movie, and (hot young movie star of the moment) will play you.

My novel, The Remnants, is not one of those novels.

I set out to write a story free of the contemporary canon of issues: no career angst, no philosophical quandaries that would lead one to pose such imponderables as to gluten or not to gluten, where no character sits on a political knife edge, nor is anyone torn by a sense of wanderlust that might compel them out of hybrid comfort into a more exciting life. And yet, for all its non-contemporary subjects, The Remnants at its heart does indeed share one unavoidable subject with those other novels, the most elemental issue of all time: the need to connect with another — emotionally, sensually, eternally — while living out this brief breath we call life.

In other words, it’s a novel about sex. Or, rather, a novel about what happens when you have sex and what happens when you don’t.

True Bliss, the eldest of my novel’s three nonagenarian protagonists, neither studied in Italy nor anywhere else, and if you must know, she has only one book in her house, and that’s the Bible, which she’s never read; instead, she uses it as a doorstop. True never drove a hybrid Volvo or any hybrid anything or anything with a combustion engine for that matter (people in New Eden walk, endlessly, and as they walk they think: about their surroundings, about time, about their place in time); she’s unaware of any air quality beyond too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry, and too buggy; and wouldn’t know a ’98 Chardonnay from yesterday’s soup fat. She’s not married, has never been married, to a Systems Integration Analyst nor anybody else, nor would she know what the hell you were talking about if you told her you were a Systems Integration Analyst, and though she did at one moment in her life think she would be married, that hoped-for union, thanks to her mother, was nipped in the bud. And although she has never heard of the Kamasutra, let alone had any kind of sex in any position in her nearly one hundred years, (she’s one day shy) let alone even shared so much as an innocent kiss, True is, however, a sage when it comes to sex — well aware of its purported pleasures, and the price to be paid for those pleasures, having seen the flushed cheeks and unwanted swellings of folks who’ve connected when they shouldn’t have connected.

Sex has been the ruination of the small, once-idyllic town of New Eden. Too many generations of families bred with too few newcomers to stretch out life’s possibilities, and eventually, too many first-cousin on first-cousin couplings led to a genetic cesspool that drowned out any possibility of any healthy new members of the community, only offspring more vegetable than animal. So for True and her ilk, evolution has ended with them.

Like True Bliss, Kennesaw Belvedere’s life has been an arm outstretched against the pleasures and pitfalls of sex. As he walks (slowly, painfully) to True’s house for his annual birthday tea (he’s turning ninety-nine), he thinks back upon his solitary life to a time when boyish exploration gave him the chastest taste of the forbidden, but feeling at that time that his feelings could not be healthy no matter how natural, he closed himself off from any connecting of any kind for the rest of his days until this one, and has lived life as a marble man: chiseled, idolized, above it all yet dead inside, desperately in need of a hand to reach out to him and make him feel alive.

And then there’s Hunko Minton, bearer of a few genetic misfirings in his own form, who’s hand for the majority of his ninety years has been firmly gripped on a life of solitary pleasure, (in truth, he’s never missed a day) yet yearned since his first squirting days that one day his dream of the perfect connection would come true, and on this day of all days, he just might get his wish.

The Remnants is called a novel of endings, for indeed, most of the characters’ lives have already taken place and passed, yet their collective stories live on in the surviving three; stories about lives spent in solitary turmoil as hearts that yearned for love, for passion, for the simplest caresses made do without, yet never lost the desire for something different, something that would last them forever.

Perhaps then, I am wrong: The Remnants is one of those novels. Teeming with lost dreams and heartbreaking regrets, in which the full arc of humanity weighs on the present and never lets go. A world rife with what ifs and what wasn’ts, full of characters who are connected by the very fact that they could not connect, and who wonder, till the very last breaths of their lives, if they still have it in them to be the people they once hoped they could be. And yes, it’s a novel in which there’s plenty of sex… and plenty of no sex, too.

Just don’t expect it to be in the G-Force Position in the front passenger seat of a ’76 Fiat Spider.

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Robert Hill is a New Englander by birth, a west coaster by choice, and an Oregonian by osmosis. As a writer, he has worked in advertising, entertainment, educational software and not-for-profit fundraising. He is a recipient of an Oregon Literary Arts Walt Morey Fellowship and a Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. The Remnants follows When All Is Said and Done (Graywolf, 2006), Robert’s debut novel, which was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Awards’ Ken Kesey Award for Fiction.