After meeting, George and Anna ride the subway north to Columbia University, where they are students. This journey takes them across the long axis of Manhattan, and the scene stretches as they stand awkwardly in the subway car. The book maintains this leisurely pace, more or less, as it gives an episodic account of George’s and Anna’s lives. After Anna cheats on George with another couple, he breaks up with her, and they go their separate ways, the narrative following them in alternating sequence.
Sex is a common denominator in their various relationships, both straight and gay. George is haunted by psychological damage from a sexually abusive, alcoholic mother: “His sexuality. Her. On the sofa, leg crossed, one tucked under her, the other with shoe dangling, the evening’s first drink with its lipstick crescent below the rim. The cigarettes similarly stained.” His dreams of a person-sized vagina are reminiscent of Philip Roth’s The Breast; as in that 1972 novella, George’s sexual encounters often focus on isolated body parts: a male partner’s legs, a female partner’s shining hair, and, of course, many breasts.
In contrast, Anna’s sex life is more conceptual:
Ruthlessly, she provided this tandem of brief pleasures while he lay there, and then, ruthlessly, she fucked him — that phrase ain’t no pleasure but meanness flicking through her mind. He seemed so small, so insignificant to her, even while he lay beneath her and was inside her. She pushed down roughly on him and she thought: So this is what it’s about, this is what it is to feel powerful, this is what it is to feel like a man: what one needed, to experience power, was to find an advantage and use it, to abandon the idea of equality, or justice, or love.
Yet despite her newfound understanding of power, it remains elusive to her. While George’s marriage culminates in a pleasant sexual relationship with his co-parent, Anna’s ends with a lingering fear of men and their potential violence. “You’re a cunt,” her soon-to-be ex snarls. “[H]e just looked at her with a molten anger. He continued the look. The moments in life when men frighten you: this was one.” Her power, as a woman, is circumscribed. After encountering a man sniffing her on the subway, and after two cops talk to her as if she were a lost little girl, Anna thinks, “Just look at me […] and tell me this, you goddamned motherfuckers: DO I EVEN FUCKING EXIST?” While George’s childhood trauma seems to have subsided throughout his lifetime of sexual encounters, Anna’s everyday trauma, so common to women, continues.
Still, she carries on with her life in New York City — no easy task, even if you’re a lawyer like Anna. And her life continues to parallel George’s. Both love to ponder what it means to live in Manhattan. Here is George’s take:
The East Village had a red cast to the light — all the brownstones and red brick — whereas the Upper West Side was always gray, with a hint of lavender that became a purplish sky at night; where George now lived, lower down past City Hall, there was almost no light at all, just slivers of the stuff in the cracks among the two centuries of poverty and soot. Sunsets involved a seeping loss of light. Nights were black.
Both have gone from being students at Columbia to upper-class New Yorkers. Both have flirted with alternative life paths. Anna begins as a nonprofit lawyer, while George becomes the cofounder of a successful coffee chain. One of the sources of his coffee, in Mexico, has ties to the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), and George is half-aware of the significance of his links with the Zapatistas. He shows a slight sympathy with their anticapitalist cause but not enough to give up neoliberal American enterprise. In what might be a romantic gesture, he “donates” money to the libertarian socialists.
George and Anna meet again, around the turn of the 21st century, and begin their youthful romance anew. The moment is described in one of the most poignant passages in the book:
She had been alone for a long time, was accustomed to it, attached to it, but it was a wound and she didn’t know who she would be without it. He was older and unattached; she was older and unattached. They would not, this time, just glance off each other like two molecules in a heated system. They would stick. She knew this, and feared it.
Yet it’s that fear that gives the midlife romance its poignancy. George and, even more so, Anna are risking a lot starting up a relationship at their ages, when loss can cause a new wound, one that may not heal this time. Nonetheless, they dive right in, and soon Anna is again playing the foil to George. Passaro deftly employs montage to move the reader through their renewed relationship with alacrity.
By this point, Anna has abandoned her career as a nonprofit lawyer and become a corporate attorney, working for one of the finance companies headquartered in the WTC. As soon as readers encounter this bit of information, they’re aware of what will happen to Anna. The book was released three days after the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. The narrator of Teju Cole’s Open City (2011), another novel that takes place in and draws meaning from New York City, describes the event that turned the WTC into Ground Zero as “the day America’s ticker stopped.” The image suggests a middle-aged man whose experiences have caught up with him. In the nation’s case, that experience includes the economic and military horror it has inflicted on much of the world, including southern Mexico where George has his business interests. Passaro, through George, doesn’t deny this fact. When September 11 comes and Anna arrives early to work in the North Tower, the montage hits the brakes and everything starts to happen slowly, with a sense of the inevitable.
Anna dies. George mourns. Their lives had intertwined once more, near the end, and now they’re both over. Crazy Sorrow continues, but the novel has shifted into falling action, toward George’s decline and inevitable death. In one scene, George and his now grown son, Nate, discuss the Fibonacci sequence, the golden ratio associated with the stock market. The metaphor is hauntingly appropriate. Things will keep getting better and better — until, against all logic, they don’t.
Ian Ross Singleton is author of the novel Two Big Differences.