As Josh Henkin’s novel Matrimony kicks off, there is no sign of marriage, just college dorm hilarity when the PCC-ers—Peer Contraceptive Counselors—come for a visit to educate the new freshman dorm dwellers. Given the pacing, I forgot that this was a book that purported to be about marriage and I started to expect a story that took place in a small college over a couple of days, or at most, a semester. I could feel some of my own Love on the Big Screen story coming on when there was some early bathroom talk between the protagonist Julian and his roommate Carter:
It’s bad enough to pee in your own shower,” his roommate said. “But in a communal shower?” He looked up at Julian. “You don’t pee in the shower, do you?”
“No,” Juian said. From time to time, he had. Didn’t everyone?
I love Henkin’s timing with his “From time to time, he had,” line. The sentences are full of those sorts of attention-grabbing surprises, and you’ll hear a lot more from Julian and his roommate, interesting stuff, about how men navigate relationships, especially when those relationships overlap. Henkin deftly takes big jumps in time when it comes to the narrative, and this is mostly achieved by dividing the story into geographically organized sections: Northington, Ann Arbor, Berkley, Iowa City, and New York. It’s with these jumps in time that Henkin is able to go down into specific detail while still telling the story of what it is to be married, at least for Julian and his wife Mia.
Julian and Mia make decisions that have consequences and things happen to their marriage that sometimes happen in relationships. In reading the book, I’m reminded that I heard Henkin say several times at the Wesleyan Writers Conference something to this effect: When writing, you want smart characters who are capable of intelligent mistakes. While none of the events or mistakes that concern Mia and Julian are shocking, all of them are a surprise, probably because the range of things that can happen to any couple—get hit by a car, find out the apartment is full of rats, or make a million in the stock market—is nearly infinite. Things happen to the couple and it’s interesting to read about how each character responds and interacts with and toward their spouse.
Matrimony can sometimes feel like a book on the art of writing. Julian and his friend Carter are both writers who attend a workshop class taught by a Professor Chesterfield who spouts guidance such as this: “THOU SHALT NOT CONFUSE A SHORT STORY WITH A RUBIK’S CUBE.” I sometimes hear folks criticize writers who write books about characters who want to write books (I see their point) but I think the writing process of everyone who writes is so highly personal and individualized that it’s usually interesting to hear how writers do what they do. This is a book more about marriage than writing, but there’s also a funny bit where a character writes a story with a character who thinks about breaking up with their boyfriend for over 20 pages. Thankfully we don’t have to read the pages; we just comically hear about the story from other characters as the novel proceeds. In this way Henkin is a skilled comedian who uses repetition to make the joke even funnier than it was the first time.
Henkin keeps the language fresh, and for awhile I was thinking that maybe there was at least one vocabulary word for me on every page. Here’s a few I jotted down that I had to look up: petard, jejune, peremptoriness, bathetic, somnolent, and bivouacking. Of course there is much more to fresh language than my vocab list, but I found myself marking interesting word choices as I read. Most of the characters are book lovers and part of the reward for reading this novel was their lively wordplay banter.
For a guy like me who has spent a lot of time thinking about how relationships work and don’t work, Matrimony presents a view of marriage that makes sense to me: hard stuff happens and the couple tries to hang in together and on some levels they succeed and on others they fail. Part of what was interesting here was to see what the couple decides to do about splitting up or staying together. From the complexities of in-laws to a crazy dog in a small NYC apartment, Matrimony shows readers a marriage worth paying attention to.