REVIEW of Ryan Asmussen’s The Englishman and the Butterfly
by Shannon McCloskey Allain
Why aren’t more thrillers set within the gray-stoned, ivied walls and stately, dusty-shelved libraries of academia? With their insular, analytical worlds, temporarily suspended from reality in the name of developing intellectual over practical experience, combined with egos, professional hierarchies and conflicting ideas, such a setting is perfect for a psychological thriller. Not since Donna Tartt’s A Secret History has it been used to such great effect. A briskly entertaining modern story with clever classical overtones and elements borrowed from Shakespearean tragedy, Ryan Asmussen’s first novel asks the age old question plaguing man since the beginning of time: How much control do we have over our own destinies?
Set in Boston, MA, at a nameless yet prestigious institution of higher learning, Dr. Henry Fell, after a harrowing plane ride from his native England to occupy his post as Distinguished Visiting Professor (specialty: Milton), finds himself thrust into a world decidedly out of his comfort zone. As the unfortunate recipient of hereditary panic attacks that cause him at times to lose consciousness, Fell’s comfort zone is quite small, and this exacerbates the tenuous control he senses he, or any of us for that matter, has over life. This is a state that both terrorizes and comforts Dr. Fell and infuses within the reader a feeling of uncertainty and tension through which to enter the story.
But into this new world he goes, at his own choosing, in response to the inertia of middle age and its penchant for prompting one to do something completely out of character, and encounters a set of delightfully complex characters to accompany him on his journey. The department administrator, Julia Collins, young, brash and beautiful, perceptive but with less self awareness than she realizes (in the manner of the young), offers her first impression of Dr. Fell:
Inside a life routinely devoid of adventure, of actual living, Henry, she intuits, is probably suffocating without knowing it. He seems sadly unaware of how short of breath he is.
Then later she asks herself, “How soon before I sleep with him?”
The blustery yet beloved Professor Geoffrey Hearne (specialty: the Moderns, occasionally and reluctantly, Donne) who surrounds himself with the trappings of intellectual stardom while hiding from the more participatory past life he traded them for. The somberly anti-social Professor Christopher Moberley, (specialty: 18th Century British Literature), who harbors a haunting past full of secrets, a poetic soul as dark as it is disturbed and is not as harmless a social misfit as he seems. And finally the cheerfully introspective Professor Kinnell of the philosophy department, fresh from a stay at a Zen Buddhist monastery in Japan, viewed as a bumbling eccentric by colleagues but providing a surprisingly lucid argument for such new-age ideas as a more reflective lifestyle, the benefits of meditation, trusting the cosmos, and living in the moment.
Such distinctive characters possessing colorful individual voices encompassing unique and often conflicting world views interact with a spontaneous feel with Boston as their stage, from Fenway Park to the ‘T’ to the Beacon Hill Stop n’ Shop, to finally (in another nod to Shakespeare) one of the many old graveyards that populate America’s most history rich city.
Asmussen has a real talent for setting a scene, festooning it with expertly layered sensory details that lend credibility to the experience. One almost needs to grab onto the nearest stable object to get through his memorable, authentic description of a ride on the ‘T’ without losing one’s footing.
The approaching cars wheeze their way up the incline, iron scrapes against iron, sparks fly, a tortured series of noises punctuated by a horn sounds like the dying trumpet of an apocalyptic elephant. Unbelievably, the train screeches well past Henry and his fellow commuters and winds up stopping a good ten feet past the place it usually stops. Which means that the already crowded train will now be almost impossible to board. If he is lucky, he will be able to squeeze his way, bereft of a Tokyo subway attendant’s help, onto the car’s first few steps and then hold his ground manfully, avoiding the angry stares of the less fortunate and the elbows of the properly stationed, until his stop, eight dots up the line.
We are right with Dr. Fell as he navigates his new surroundings and interacts with his new colleagues, promptly falling in love with the American Julia to his surprise and enthralled when she returns the feeling. But as with all human interactions we can struggle to control our own behaviors but cannot control another’s, and it’s this precise lack of power over one’s own destiny Henry Fell fears and with friends like Julia, Professor Hearne and the sinister Moberly, he is right to. All is never what it seems and Fell comes to this grim realization in the first of three scenes in the Mt. Auburn Cemetery. He and Julia are there to look for E.E. Cummings’ grave and begin to argue when they are unable to locate it (Cummings is in fact buried in the Forest Hills Cemetery in the Jamaica Plains neighborhood of Boston). A panic attack ensues and when he regains consciousness, Julia is nowhere to be found. Instead of offering comfort when her lover comes to, she burdens him with disturbing news. Lines of Milton’s Paradise Lost spring to Fell’s mind, both a play on his name and a comment on free will:
And Spirits, both them who stood and them who faild;
Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell.
Or as Fell himself later puts it,
We sit in rooms and silently decide our fates, Henry thinks, secretly hoping that fate is really leading us by the hand and doing the deciding for us. Free will, however, is only a convincing whisper.
Without the euphoria of new love to distract and center him in his surroundings, Fell tumbles into a state of depression, and lacking the comforting illusion of control all he seems able to do is react. Thus begins a chain of events that will change everyone’s life, foreshadowed by a discussion Henry has with Professor Kinnell in a coffee shop, where we find the philosophy professor far more wise than Fell was led to believe from less enlightened and certainly less honest characters. Here Kinnell defends his habit of practicing meditation.
And, as Vonnegut writes in Slaughterhouse-Five, ‘So it goes.’ On and on. Thought-monkeys continue to wave and chatter, tree limbs bend and snap, weak leaves flutter to the ground. I realize, for the thousandth time as I sit there and feel my legs ache, that this mind of ours does not so much want to settle into the present moment as it wants to traverse past ground or to step into the unknowable future. It wants to problem-solve. It wants to debate with itself. It wants to yell and blame. It wants to do almost anything but pay attention to the moment, to simply sit and be still, to be profoundly quiet. It wants to pick at old emotional scabs and cause itself pain. It wants to reexamine recent confrontations and come up with better arguments, possible comeback lines. It wants to forecast the weather. It wants to fantasize about the perfect woman. It wants to imagine the death of a certain friend and gauge its reaction. It wants to dream about sailing down the Nile at sunset. It simply wants. And we human beings, adrift on this ship of self, move about enacting in the flesh the desires of these thoughts which we really think are our own desires, when in reality they’re just as separate from ourselves as the strange woman is we sit next to on the subway.
From Julia’s suspicions of Moberley, to Hearne’s under-reaction to her concerns, to their decision to involve Fell which culminates in the novel’s surprising (if a little unlikely, but so is life sometimes) climax, from here on we are on a reactionary ride with each character trying to meet their individual needs, however selfish or harmful to themselves or others, while our Dr. Fell lies helplessly (much to his relief perhaps) in a coma. But to the author’s credit, he knows he can’t leave his hero unchanged after such a dramatic experience, and in Part II of the novel, entitled “Henry’s Dream” we sense this will be the case as Fell imagines in a gruesome tableau, being ravaged by the butterfly, the central motif of the book, symbolic of his acceptance of life in its mystery and chaos, and the ceasing of his struggle against it.
Part III of the book finds Fell better equipped to deal with the tragedies that have taken place despite being in a weakened physical state and suffering from amnesia. There is a priceless interrogation scene with a Boston cop with no patience for Fell’s bookish literary references that provides much needed comic relief, a welcome counter to the story’s darkness and a clever way to underscore his realization that he must stop covering himself in the armor of language and literature and embrace direct experience for once.
Fell: I was just wondering about something.
Fell: When the typescript of this interview comes out, readers will have no idea what kind of tone I used in my replies, particularly when I replied with a yes. Playwrights often include adverbs of stage direction in their scripts to guide actors. Parenthesis bitterly, end parenthesis. Shakespeerean criticism was for a time largely concerned with those kind of questions of motivation since we don’t have that kind of direction in the foleeos. Bradley. People like that. We can only guess from the flavor of the verse. Don’t you think it should include adverbs?
Investigator: [long pause] Are you intentionally being an asshole?
Investigator: He said like an asshole?
Fell: I see your point.
Fell: I understand.
It is this, the other central theme of the book, the dangers of relying too heavily upon language and literature to provide meaning in life that is the source of my most significant criticism. With a plethora of literary references as diverse as Milton to Nabokov, Thoreau to Vonnegut, Bob Dylan to Plato not to mention many others, one would have to be supremely well read to take much from them. But perhaps such all encompassing inclusion is purposeful, underscoring the author’s message that there are so many artists who have sought to explain the mysteries of life through literature that it might be best to not over-rely, experience life directly and develop your own philosophy. Even so, sometimes the briskly moving plot is interrupted by excessive rumination such as Chapter 4 of Part III which consists entirely of Professor Kinnell’s unpublished manuscript, a treatise on the human condition. But such diversions thankfully do not detract too much from a clever plot and intricately painted scenes populated with eccentric, well drawn and fully dimensional characters.
Asmussen deftly handles an ambitious theme by setting his novel in a comfortable, controlled academic setting, a cocoon, if you will. Isn’t that what universities are? A place of safety and comfort to develop different philosophies, theories and behaviors before deciding what you are most comfortable with, emerging and flying, like a butterfly, out into the world? The varying fates of the characters reflect which theories regarding free will the author believes most lucid, as well as the folly of over-reliance on language and literature to unravel the mystery further. The meaning of life, Fell has come to realize, as well as any one individual’s understanding of it, is (in another manifestation of the novel’s motif), as impossible to grasp as a butterfly.
He yearns for a time when, regardless of the consequences, he will be able to sit back and accurately assess his life. But he knows he will never have the requisite distance. His life will only offer itself up to him in a variety of immediately dazzling colors, infinite stretches of textures, and will stubbornly keep hidden the panorama of its true nature. His eyes will never be able to detach from the inch or so of canvas upon which they are fastened, step backward with backward moving legs, and take in the painting as a whole. The artist’s full and proper intent will remain a mystery to him, always.
Dr. Fell tellingly ends the novel in flight, back home to England, his unfinished Milton manuscript abandoned in his briefcase, the new fiction novel about his American experience he is now compelled to write forming in his head. Gone is the disquieting anxiety. The worst has happened and he has emerged intact, no longer fearing the mysteries of life and ready to figure them out for himself.