Hayward, Steven: Don’t Be Afraid
Knopf Canada, 2011
Memory, memorialization and movies:
Students often ask me what makes a piece of writing literature, as opposed to just another story. The short answer, for me, is that when you look for deeper meaning, or, “the other discussion” in a piece of literature, you will find it. Literature rewards thoughtful readers with the discovery of an interconnected structure of metaphor and allusion, whose alchemy contributes to the power of the work in ways that can’t always be parsed precisely. Steven Hayward’s new novel, Don’t Be Afraid, is no exception.
Besides definite parallels to 9-11, mentioned in the first part of this review, another important undercurrent in Hayward’s novel is the idea of the movie which is used as a vehicle for an exploration of memory and the different ways in which a lost loved one, or a lost way of life, can continue to live with us. Connections to movies are made immediately in the story. As Jim explains it, one of the brothers’ important responsibilities at the library is to clean and repair the library’s archive of 16 mm film, although Jim is the one who does most of the work. The image of the film, pulled through the projector, “unwinding at one end and winding up at the other,” becomes an important metaphor for a human life, the seconds counted by the tick of the sprockets turning, resonating with what we know is the countdown of Mike’s life.
Another strand of the movie metaphor appears in the brothers’ conversations about their plan to make a movie “about [their] life and times and which told the truth about [them].” They spend quite a bit of time speculating about which star would play the lead (i.e. Mike). Sean Penn was a contender – a fact which becomes important later in the story. However, Mike’s death abruptly changes the movie – forcing a reluctant Jim into the leading role. Mike’s movie (i.e. life) exists now only in memory. Jim, being the thoughtful one, quickly becomes aware of the fragility of memory – very much like the old film in his care, memory requires constant attention to be kept in good repair. However, with every break and subsequent repair, something is lost, and far from being “safe from the ravages of time,” the Mike of memory has already begun to change subtly. Jim is upset to notice that a photo of his brother, used at the time when Mike still might have been a missing person, and not dead, has been airbrushed, and isn’t quite right. As Jim puts it, “I was there to talk about a Mike who had changed in some mysterious way, a version of my brother who’s already crossed over to the other side, or a replicant (…) who looked a lot like him but who wasn’t him, and who I’d eventually have to kill.” Just like the library’s 16 mm film collection, which now consisted only of footage deemed irreplaceable (i.e. the essential record) of such things as endangered or extinct species, or lost African tribes, Jim’s memory of Mike will eventually be spliced down to the essentials. At some point, what is left will no longer be true to the original.
The image of the reel to reel movie functioning as a metaphor for life can be universalized to the life of a civilization or of the planet itself. The clear connections in the story to 9-11 invite the reader to do so. The library archive becomes the collective memory of our civilization, our idea of ourselves, which can be subject to sudden, and catastrophic breakage and irreplaceable loss. As Jim puts it, “you can wake up to find the world wrecked, not at all the way you remembered.”
Coming next: mythic and literary allusion in Don’t Be Afraid and several scenes worth noticing.