What Happens at Night

Peter Cameron

reviewed by

Asher Gelzer-Govatos

The international adoption process – so I hear from friends who have gone through it – can quickly turn into a frustrating game of bureaucratic whack-a-mole, with unforeseen delays, piles of paperwork, and a constantly regenerating flow of officialese to cut through. Peter Cameron cannily literalizes the nightmarish aspects of this adoption process in his latest novel, What Happens at Night. Like the characters in Kurosawa’s Ikiru, who find themselves shuffled from government agency to government agency in an endless loop, the unnamed married couple at the center of Cameron’s novel expend a great deal of energy getting nowhere; having traveled thousands of miles from New York City to an anonymous country in the far north, they find themselves unable to close the final gap and actually obtain their infant son.

     As with any book structured around a series of delays, What Happens at Night makes the most of its gaps, providing a picaresque tour of the bizarre town of Borgarfjaroasysla, a place riddled with the usual assortment of grotesqueries: a decrepit Grand Imperial Hotel straight out of The Shining; a diner that only serves “garbage soup”; and, most significantly, a faith healer named Brother Emmanuel, who may or may not hold the key to the wife’s recovery from cancer. Over the space of a few days, as the man and woman wait to finally take home the child, they fight, part, and reconnect, putting their various marital issues through their paces.

     It is this strange hybrid – between the mundane and the quasi-supernatural, the ephemeral and the solid – that courses through Cameron’s novel and supplies its forward thrust. More than any particular incident, it is the feeling of unease which pulls the reader along. Indeed, this mixture, Cameron suggests, is what happens at night, that blurry time when the certainties of day fade into shadow. Cameron plays with time throughout the book: the woman, weak from illness, spends most of her time asleep, while the man drains down the local schnapps at breakfast. But it is at night when the monsters of the subconscious come out to play, and when the man meets the other characters who will shape the trajectory of his time in the town.

     First, Livia Pinheiro-Rima, former circus girl and actress, now an old woman who now spends her days in the lounge at the Grand Imperial Hotel, hobnobbing and occasionally singing for the guests. Livia takes an interest in the man and the woman, and forces her kindness upon them, caring for the woman like a nanny and greasing the wheels of the adoption process when she can. She is the Blue Fairy of the story, kind and helpful, if a bit obnoxious, and always inching the man and the woman toward their ultimate ends.

     The man finds a slipperier companion in The Businessman, who attacks life with a rough gusto (one can see him played to perfection by John Goodman, back when John Goodman still had some corporeal heft). The Businessman, who continually insists that he has met (and slept with) the man before, adds a dose of fire to the mostly chilly events of the book. If Livia is the grease on the wheels, the Businessman is the sand in the gears, working to jar the man out of the complacency of his life: not only the unthinking, unfulfilling erotics of his heterosexual marriage, but the entire somnambulatory mode in which the man leads his life. Engaging with the Businessman leads the man down some risky paths (at one point, out to dinner, he gets mugged in a bathroom), but also reveals what a life lived awake might look like.

     While the husband pursues his various mundane quests, the wife embarks on a more spiritual journey. Though not present for large chunks of the narrative – she falls asleep repeatedly, at all hours – she nevertheless provides a structuring absence around which the man must navigate, and undergoes her own transformations, largely out of sight of both the man and the reader. If we see every vacillation in the man’s thought process, the woman’s motivations remain shrouded, even as she hesitates regarding the adoption, pulled along by the hope of a cure offered by Brother Emmanuel. Her final decisions regarding health and her family manage both to surprise the reader and feel like a natural development from her attitudes toward life and marriage.

     Much of the difficulty, the necessary vagueness, of describing the narrative of What Happens at Night lies in its desultory nature. This is a book of punctuated equilibrium, where long stretches of inaction erupt into shocking, dynamic set pieces. Cameron’s great strength here lies in his ability to keep you invested in the long stretches where nothing much happens, then blindside you with a left hook of a twist. His ability to sketch minor characters, such as the taciturn bartender Lárus, with droll precision lends a comic zip to these interludes. Here’s how Cameron describes Lárus during the man’s first visit to the bar:

     [He was] remarkably stiff, as if he had been born with fewer 

     joints than normal; he seemed   unable, or unwilling, to 

     bend his neck, so he gazed out over the man’s head and  

     spoke to the   alabaster sconce on the wall just behind 

     them.

This eye for the absurd, the physically and socially inapt details that render even self-serious individuals ridiculous, permeates all of What Happens at Night. It’s also, no doubt, a major reason that the book cannot help but call to mind works that illuminate Eastern European bureaucracy, most famously of course the writings of Kafka.

     Far from a straight homage to the author of The Castle (the Kafka story Cameron’s novel most closely recalls), What Happens at Night feels like an attempt to blend Kafka’s absurdist fantasies with the more grounded work of authors whom Cameron has often cited as major influences on him: midcentury British women writers such as Barbara Pym and Elizabeth Bowen, whose interest in the realities of life and interpersonal drama come out in Cameron’s attention to the marital struggles of the man and the woman.

     Marriage drama cum sinister fable. The very different ingredients make for an interesting mixture – sometimes successful, sometimes less so. Some readers might find the hybrid style a little distracting, mostly because the intense interest in real life details sits uneasily next to the blank prose necessary to make the fable style work. Cameron can write a passable imitation of the blank style when he wants (I’m an especially big fan of this deadpan sentence: “There was just enough light remaining in the carriage to see that there was no light”). But for the Kafkaesque to really grow and develop, the writer must maintain total tonal control. See, for contrast, the unflinching, controlled prose in Kazuo Ishiguro’s riff on Kafka, The Unconsoled. It’s unfair perhaps to compare What Happens at Night to that book, not least because Cameron is attempting a different experiment here. And even if the experiment is not at every point fully succesful, What Happens at Night provides enough pleasurable nooks and crannies to explore that the final lack of cohesion fades in light of its many excellent parts. Sometimes, the detour is worth more than the destination.

What Happens at Night

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