Bill Roorbach’s new novel, Life Among Giants, is complexly plotted, wildly entertaining, and hugely funny—qualities readers may recognize from Bill’s May/June 2012 contribution to Orion, “Stay Awake, for the End Is Near,” a report from a twenty-five-hour marathon reading of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick. We asked Bill to introduce his new tale, out this month from Algonquin Books.
The question is how to make nature more than mere setting for a contemporary novel, especially a genre-bender like Life Among Giants. It’s a family saga, a coming of age novel, a thriller, a mystery. And yet it remembers the natural world, a world with fungi and flowers and microorganisms and weather and terrible stresses, also sunshine and soft breezes; a world where chapters can walk in the woods, take a sail, or swim an inlet, where autumn takes on more than metaphorical importance in the various turnings of a complex plot.
Start with a young narrator, David “Lizard” Hochmeyer, who knows the names of trees and has long looked longingly across a colonial millpond to the enormous stone mansion across the way. One fall day, he decides to cross over, to rescue the world-famous ballerina who lives there, offer succor after the suspicious death of her husband, the rocker Dabney Stryker-Stewart, a guy as famous and talented as Mick Jagger or John Lennon, at least in this fictional ecosystem.
Lizard mows the dancer’s lawn. She gives him her late husband’s Austrian birding binoculars. Why binoculars? Well, there’s an eclipse that very night. Though, as it turns out, she’s the eclipse—people as nature and not only in it.
The book is loosely based on the Bournonville Ballet La Sylphide, in which a mortal young man named James falls in love with a sylph, a forest fairy creature who has passed into the mortal realm just to amuse herself. She seduces James, calls him into her world, a world, as it turns out, where mortals can’t live. A natural allegory, of course, but once again more than metaphor: there really are worlds within worlds and we humans can only live in some of them.
The love scenes in Life Among Giants (plenty of love scenes, though none of them in shades of gray) take place either outdoors or in a simulated outdoors within a certain building on the mansion’s grounds.
But before all that, Lizard’s girl, Emily, a young woman who knits sweaters out of bark, takes him to the rocks in the forest near their high school, and there they all but make love. Then Emily disappears, arriving later in a storm of epic proportion, soaked and so muddy that gravel falls from her clothing. And later in life, Lizard, unable to love after the traumatic events of his youth (to be found in chapter one), connects temporarily with a woman who leads him to the beach in darkness, helps him find his way. Emotionally, I mean.
The mushroom on the cover? Well, you’ll have to read the book.
Bill Roorbach is the author of many books of fiction and nonfiction, and his work has been published in Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. He lives with his family in Maine.