Early on in The Solitary Twin, Harry Mathews’s posthumous novel, published this March, four friends—Geoffrey and Margot Hyde, Berenice Tinker, and Andreas Boeyens—are having dinner in their unnamed coastal town. As a way to get to know one another better, Andreas proposes that everyone tell a story. “Not necessarily stories about ourselves, although obviously there’s nothing wrong with that, but also stories we’ve heard from other people, or remember from books and plays,” she says. Berenice goes first.
She tells the strange story of Hubert, the valet for a wealthy gentleman, who experiences something like a spiritual awakening during a visit to the park on his day off. Walking around the park, he suddenly begins to feel weightless. “This released a spurt of joy, also unsuspected grief upwelling, so as he delightedly smiled, tears rolled down his cheeks,” Berenice remarks. A woman named Rachel sees Hubert, and though she doesn’t understand his ecstasy, it makes her “yearn to partake of his feelings.” She follows him, and after meeting, they begin an affair.
Hubert attempts to share what happened, leading to the “presentation of a personal ‘life experience’…considered ‘highly interesting and potentially useful to anyone with an open mind.’ ” But no audience believes his tale. Feeling isolated and misunderstood, he sinks into a depression. Eventually, Rachel has a similar transcendental experience. “Now we have our holy order. A society of two. That’s enough room to stand up in,” Hubert tells her. All the evangelism begins to seem beside the point. This tale is really about an indescribable, near-mystical feeling, shared by two people with a committed bond. In other words, it’s about love. And so by inserting these quirky diversions into the story of The Solitary Twin, Mathews gives his novel a strong romantic streak, and the novel doesn’t lose its force with sentimentality.
Berenice’s tale leads to Andreas’s revelation that Hubert may have been the valet for his father. This detail receives no further explanation. And in this manner, The Solitary Twin continues on to raise more questions than it answers. After that, it’s Geoffrey’s turn. On a Pan Am flight in the early ’80s, a fellow passenger named Malachi tells Geoffrey his life story (making it a story within a story within a novel—a complication typical of Mathews). As a child, Malachi escaped from Nazi-controlled Poland. The Gestapo arrested his parents, committing them to a detention camp. After years of life as an orphaned refugee, peddling “whatever he could find” on the streets of Antwerp—gasoline, hard-to-come-by fine foods, high-priced fashion, and more—Malachi moved to Miami and bought a Ford dealership. He made his business profitable by producing ads offering unfinished plotlines. According to Geoffrey, he “had intuitively identified a basic, hardwired impulse: the desire to resolve the irresolute, to conclude the incomplete, to have the crooked made straight…where love is not yet fulfilled or disaster looms, a situation can be left dangling at the end of an episode as yet undecided.”