In Antonya Nelson’s fourth novel, characters are tied to one another by love, by chance, by obligation—and by fear.
What would you do if your best friend from high school, whom you haven’t spoken to in years, died and left her teenage daughter in your custody? Or, let’s say you’re an aging big fish in a small pond, and you’re on the verge of leaving yet another wife for yet another younger woman—indeed, what does one do?
Antonya Nelson’s fourth novel, Bound, poses these questions by examining the unraveling ties that bind, all while a notorious serial killer re-emerges and the United States is at war. Catherine Desplaines and Cattie Mueller are unaware of each other’s existence until Misty Mueller dies in a car accident. This happens about the same time that Oliver Desplaines, pushing seventy, is getting caught up in an affair with “The Sweetheart,” and Randall, an emotionally disturbed boot-camp inductee, goes AWOL. Each of these characters is on the verge of collapse, and all are bound together, whether biologically, legally, or emotionally. The resulting tension propels Nelson’s novel through a fast two-hundred and thirty pages.
When she learns of her mother’s death, Cattie runs away from boarding school in Vermont and meets up with Randall, who is also on the run. In pairing them, Nelson lets two perplexing personalities react on the page:
“I can make coffee,” she said eventually. So what? she answered herself.
“Fine,” he said. She delivered the cup to the lid of the toilet, where he stared at it briefly as if they’d had a misunderstanding. Maybe they had.
“I’m Cattie,” she said, leaving the small room. So what? He had finished shaving and was peering into the mirror at different tipping angles, noting his own features curiously. Cattie knew the feeling. Avoid a mirror long enough, and you become a kind of curiosity to yourself, some internal idea going to smash against the reality, and never in a good way.
Never too comfortable, and yet never too ill-at-ease, Randall and Cattie are connected in a way that is most unique from the other characters: Though they don’t quite understand each other, they recognize that they’re misfits, and thus equals.
Nelson captures the sexagenarian Oliver’s youthful abandon in his love for “The Sweetheart” with the same keen accuracy, though the dynamic between them is different. Contrasting Randall’s relationship to Cattie with the secret passion between Oliver and “The Sweetheart” reminds readers of just how complicated being bound to someone else always is. Reader can see the mistake Oliver is making, but by reminding us how good making such mistakes can feel Nelson refuses to allow Oliver to be judged:
She had not been properly loved, Oliver decided. There was nothing more powerful than to be in the position of offering proper adoration to someone. He was still, after a month, meandering around in his own mind and heart about how they’d arrived at the amazing situation of having one another. It had happened before, and yet he never could be prepared for being struck by love. It fell upon him like an accident, like a car crash or knife cut, out of nowhere, without permission or intention. It was like luck, and he would not turn away from such a thing. He was stubborn, that way.
While most of Bound gives an up-close look at different kinds of relationships, the narrative takes the opportunity to pull back and show the larger context in which these relationships play but the most insignificant role—the world of Nelson’s novel has much bigger problems. Mainly set in Wichita, Kansas, the return of the serial killer known as “BTK” creates even more tension, and Nelson use readers’ curiosity and fear to great effect—the killer could show up anywhere, , and it’s only a question of when:
Every morning, every night, the self-named BTK appeared once more in the news; for twenty-five years he’d lain dormant. Incarcerated, the city speculated: insane asylum or correctional facility; how else to explain the hiatus? Once, it could have been plausible that he’d moved on, to another town, to another smorgasbord of potential victims. In leaving, he might have changed his methods, no longer binding, torturing, killing, but some other set of signature initials. Strangling, dangling, mangling, the SDM of, say, Sioux Falls or Grand Rapids.
The threat of BTK extends the novel’s geographical reach by exposing what Wichita has in common with any other city: At any moment, it could become a very dangerous place.
Bound is almost effortless to read—which is remarkable when one considers the number of complex relationships at work and the cutting truth with which each character is depicted. The novel has a broad focus on its characters’ social contexts, reminding readers that the world is not as small as it’s often made out to be. That a novel can accomplish so much in such tight space is otherworldly, and it speaks to Antonya Nelson’s gift for writing great fiction.