Characters Protesting the Times, When the Real Problem Is Time Itself

THE SUN COLLECTIVE
By Charles Baxter

What to do with all of this anxiety?

That question hangs over Charles Baxter’s tense, wry and ultimately touching new novel, “The Sun Collective,” which vividly recreates the oscillating sense of dread familiar to anyone who hasn’t spent the last four years in a coma, or in Canada.

Set in Minneapolis during the reign of a brutish and banal president named Thorkelson, “The Sun Collective” is the story of the retirees Harold and Alma Brettigan, whose search for their missing son leads them to the group that gives the novel its title. Along the way they pass many other signs and wonders of our parlous present.

There are shadowy right-wingers called Sandmen who might be killing street people. And someone is causing the comically apt deaths of the wealthy (this one impaled on a sundial, that one drowned in a serenity pool). Manifestos are being thrust upon senior members of “the Thundering Herd” while they walk their power laps at the “Utopia Mall.”

The Brettigans mostly just hear rumors about this stuff, but it’s enough to put them in a constant state of worry and agitation. And not just about their missing son, a charming onetime stage actor named Timothy. Harold feels such guilt over his well-off, liberal entitlement that he jerks awake in the middle of the night dreaming he’s committed a murder. Alma seems to be having mini-strokes. Their pets are trying to tell them something. And everywhere they go — the light rail, the park, the Skyway — they seem to meet mysterious, monologuing strangers.

What bedevils the Brettigans and their neighbors can feel a bit amorphous, but this could well be Baxter’s point. Or it could be the times. The effect of President Thorkelson’s trickle-down dread neatly recalls that of the Trump years, although the two presidents are not entirely analogous. For one thing, Thorkelson writes and publishes a monthly poem — Baxter’s point being, perhaps, look, things could have been worse.

Baxter is the author of five other novels, along with several story collections and books of poetry and essays. His terrific, dog-eared books on writing, “Burning Down the House” and “The Art of Subtext,” might intimidate a lesser reviewer into feeling as if he’d been asked to assess the light-saber technique of a Jedi master. (As one character says in the novel: “The oligarchs love it when you use the passive voice.”)

There is plenty of artful subtext in “The Sun Collective,” and a burning house or two. But, as with his sumptuous 2000 novel “The Feast of Love” (a finalist for the National Book Award), Baxter’s true gift is in describing the tender complexities of a relationship. Here, it’s the wistful, at times contentious, “post-love” of Harold and Alma, whose real problem might not be the times, but time, and their own senescence and mortality.

“Everything you have to tell me, you’ve told,” Alma says to her husband not long after noticing him watching a young couple in the park. In a remarkably moving moment, she interrupts Harold’s youthful daydreams by putting a hand on his arm. “We were like that,” she reassures him. “You didn’t miss out on anything.”

That younger couple, Christina and Ludlow, will become the Brettigans’ generational mirrors, and their entry point into the Sun Collective. If they are sketchier characters, both in Baxter’s depiction and in the reader’s eye, that may again be Baxter’s point. Or it may be the times.

Are they brainwashed anarchists? Designer-drug-crazed criminals? Sweet hippies? Hard to say. Similarly, the Sun Collective itself comes across as fuzzy, or, as Christina describes it: “kinda anarchic, with some universal basic income proselytizers and democratic socialists … urban farmers, 12-step groupies, you know, activists for this and that.”

This and that sounds about right. The Sun Collective’s mysterious leader, Wye, talks like a Buddhist with anger issues. And is there a worse form to read than the manifesto, that dull fusion of crazy and vague? “Stop bad love,” this one insists. “Bomb this bad love and get right with your hearts. Bomb the power. Bomb the plate glass, bomb the store dummies, bomb the consumers, bomb the bankers, the businessmen, the hucksters, bomb the oligarchs, the thieves. The mall is a disease.”

This is one of the dangers of writing fiction that aims to capture the current moment. The current moment is a slippery bugger, not inclined to wait for publishing schedules. After a summer of actual riots, of racial and social unrest over the very real and nonfuzzy, heart-rending issue of police violence against Black Americans, the simmering rebellion of the Sun Collective feels like a halfhearted thought experiment.

There is no shortage of action involving the perpetually stoned Christina, the slippery Ludlow and the other anarchists, and Baxter delivers a satisfying resolution to the story line of the Brettigans’ missing son, but lingering questions about the effectiveness and the ethics of such resistance — let alone what they’re really up to — never go much deeper than the manifesto.

Luckily, there are always Harold and Alma to return to, and they anchor the story because of Baxter’s generous eye and keen observational humor. They are charming and ingratiating, clearly in love and genuinely baffled that they’re still together. “She bit into another small square of roast and chewed thoughtfully. Because it hurt him to watch her consuming so much salt, he thought he probably still loved her.”

I’m not sure if their relationship really does represent post-love, or exhausted love or overwhelmed-by-the-state-of-the-world love or just plain love, but their well-meaning suburban angst is gently satirized and perfectly drawn: “When she was out running errands, Alma left the radio on to deter break-ins. Burglars hated NPR, she believed.”

Their observations about the modern world sometimes have a Hey-you-kids-get-off-my-lawn quality (“What is it with young people and noise?”), but the novel continually builds poignancy by revealing that what Harold and Alma really long for is themselves at that age, when they had the passion of those young people cavorting across the park.

Harold keeps picturing his wife when they met, “beautiful in every possible way … untouchable in her grace,” and at one point Alma finds herself telling Christina and Ludlow about another boy she once liked, as if age has stripped away the need to protect her husband from this story.

“‘You loved him, a little,’ Brettigan said, once again finishing her sentence for her, the words emerging like stones.

“‘I loved him a little,’” she admits.

The ability to decipher the enigmatic motivations of these young ideologues is just one more thing that old age is taking from them, and it hurts as much as the rest of it does. Harold tries desperately to connect with his 1960s Vietnam-protesting self, but it’s clear this is not his fight. He and Alma are left only with confusion and worry, and the kinds of quiet, late-night conversations that might sound familiar to many readers.

“Sometimes I can’t bear it,” Alma tells Harold quietly at one point. “Any of it.”

“I know,” he replies. “But we have to.”

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