Writing about grief has been the death of many a novelist--artistically speaking, that is. Even the most earnest attempts to describe this taxing and tenacious emotion can dip into bathos and rhetorical wire-pulling. In Layover, however, Lisa Zeidner gives grief its due, and does so with such wit and high style that the reader's (occasional) tears are mixed with a kind of elation. Exactly what is Claire Newbold mourning? Mostly the death of her young son, which has taken place some time before the novel opens. In response, she's withdrawn from her husband (a no-less-shattered surgeon) and her job (a sales rep for a medical-supplies company), allowing herself just the faintest purchase on her old existence: "Right now, I realize, I was just floating. Trying to float. Skimming over my life, letting life tickle my feet. I had no plans to glide off entirely." Gliding off entirely, however, is exactly what she does after learning of a single infidelity on her husband's part. In the middle of a business trip she cuts off all contact with home and lurches into a sex-and-self-discovery spree.
Sneaking in and out of hotel rooms without registering--which, let's face it, is the final eradication of identity for any business traveler--Claire first seduces an 18-year-old, then manages to get in bed with the boy's father. Zeidner records these trysts with superb, hypersensitive relish, finding fresh ways to write about that topic, too. "Sex is a story you know the ending of," she notes. "More or less the same story with the same ending, every time. Yet we want to keep hearing it, the way a child listens to a fairy tale, vigilant for variation." Still, Layover is anything but a bedroom farce. As Claire bounces between erotic encounters, she is unraveling before our eyes, and Zeidner's real subject turns out to be not body but soul:
I'd discovered grief's trade secret: once you burrow that deep into yourself, you simply have a better nose for pain. Truth is, hardly anyone is happy. Not even the people with nothing wrong. They're all hunkered down in the bunker of self, in self's fragile failure. There is so much to praise in Layover that it's hard to know where to start, or to stop. It's diabolically funny, deeply intelligent, and surely the best work of hotel- or motel-room anthropology since Humbert Humbert did his cross-country trek. At one point, however, Claire ascribes a kind of clairvoyance to herself: she can see into people, she claims, while their souls "glow phosphorescent, as if X-rayed by the baggage-check machine." Zeidner has a similar, semi-radiant insight into human behavior--and hers, of course, is anything but a delusion. --James Marcus [via]