At some point in Inside, Alix Ohlin’s elegant second novel, you will probably notice, as I did toward the end, that her characters have a lot of sex. I mean a LOT of sex.
Holy cow do they have a lot of sex.
I was going to summarize it here but that will take too long. Instead, I’ll just say that it’s as if Ohlin took a literary dare to make writing well about sex look easy, and succeeded to a degree you wouldn’t have imagined possible.
One of the strange and beautiful things about Inside, though, is that you might not notice all the sex. Partly this is because Ohlin writes it with such restraint and style. Her characters slip in and out of their clothes with mystical ease. The sex scenes glide in and out of the frame, sometimes in flashes, always seamlessly conjoined with the story.
The sex, in other words, is never gratuitous. In fact, it’s integral to the narrative, an ironic symbol meant to indicate the scarcity of what it signifies. There is a lot of sex in Inside, but very little love. The sex between Ohlin’s characters is just something they need. Inside is thus an original novel about a timeless theme: the persistent difficulty of loving and well-meaning people to connect to one another.
The year is 1996. Grace, a therapist divorced from her husband Mitch, is cross-country skiing outside Montreal when she comes across John Tugwell, a former international aid worker lying motionless in the snow after trying but failing to hang himself. Grace leaps into “Tug’s” life and, in a noble gesture, takes him home and attempts to nurse him to physical and mental health. She is trying, in other words, to resurrect him.
We jump backward ten years. Grace is in therapy with a teenage patient, Annie, who cuts herself to remedy the oppression of her controlling parents. Annie wants to be a famous actress. Grace is married to another therapist, Mitch, who has fallen out of love with her. Fast-forward six years and Annie has become Anne, a 22 year-old actress auditioning for plays in New York. She lives in a rent-controlled sublet on the Lower East Side, where she reluctantly takes in Hilary, a runaway who sleeps on her couch.
Back in the present, Grace tries to complete Tug’s resurrection. Mitch falls in with Martine, a divorced woman with an autistic son, but he doesn’t really love them either. He travels to Iqaluit, capital of the newly designated Canadian province Nunavut. It is a remote town whose primary qualities are rugged desolation and functional architecture. There, Mitch works for a mental health clinic that serves the native population. He will try to save the Inuit.
Anne, meanwhile, is not really trying to save Hilary. It’s more that she is letting Hilary try to rescue herself. Eventually Hilary’s father shows up to retrieve her. Anne lands a television gig and takes off for Hollywood, where she will have more sex than anyone in this novel, and probably many, if not most, of the people who actually live in Hollywood.
The time-shifts complicate the narrative while perfectly serving its themes, including the difficulty of finding love and the ironic contrast between its scarcity and the relative availability of its physical counterpart. Inside is also about salvation. Can you save someone by loving them? Can you love someone by saving them? We think of love as a form of salvation. Inside asks whether an affirmative act of salvation can be a form of love.
Ohlin writes in elegant prose that is flush with wit and style, as clever and as smooth as Lorrie Moore. Her light send up of the acting world, for example, presented through Anne’s career in television, is a particulate delight. Larry, the actor from whom she sublets her New York apartment, works in commercials. “He was the husband strolling through the house in the real-estate ad, the man grimacing with hemorrhoid pain before exhaling in relief,” Ohlin writes.
Later, Anne’s recent ex-girlfriend Diane discovers her with Neal, a guy she met at her gym:
Neal, hearing voices, came out wearing boxers and holding his cell phone. Anne wondered if he was going to call the police, or ask Diane if she wanted a steak. A good protein source was his answer to everything.
As these quotes perhaps suggest, the mysterious thing about Inside is that, for all the coupling and acts of salvation, intended or accepted out of obligation, no one’s heart seems to be in it. It’s this cold quality that makes Inside so engrossing. You think, “Who are these people?”
The answer, maybe, is that they are angels without wings. Inside reminded me of the Leonard Cohen song “Sisters of Mercy,” about a band of angels with the power to lift men up from despair, to bind them with love as graceful and green as a stem. “Well I’ve been where you’re hanging,” Cohen sings, “I think I can see how you’re pinned.” In Ohlin’s novel there are no angels, only ordinary people, overwhelmed and inadequate to the task of offering the grace, or receiving the love, that delivers salvation.
Hopefully I’ve explained, without giving anything away, why the ending of this novel is so beautiful. The turn in the plot that begins to draw the threads of the narrative together comes almost exactly halfway through the novel. As the drama it puts into motion unfolds, you see why it was necessary for Ohlin to introduce so many characters whose lives crossed without connecting, why she fragmented their stories in place and time, why it was imperative that all of their relationships be so chill.
There’s something about a novel that only reveals its full self in its last few lines. The closing lines of Inside are like a rose in winter bloom. Alix Ohlin’s novel runs with an undercurrent of hopelessness. Her characters have a hollow-ness inside. But Inside is, ultimately, a novel about hope. It begins with a gesture of despair and ends with one of promise.
Who are these people? They are all of us.