Good literary novels tend to work in one of two ways: Either they push into emotionally unfamiliar territory that causes the reader to shake his or her head with wonder, or they pull the reader into such deeply familiar and highly dysfunctional scenarios that the reader can't help but nod.
Even as kids, we easily identify a relationship forged in hell. Some of us may have experienced unhealthy bonds ourselves. So when we read a novel that perfectly captures the evil essence of something like domestic abuse, we cringe in recognition as we turn to the next page. And then the next, eager to see how the protagonist will extricate himself or herself, if at all.
Meg Files' The Third Law of Motion is a cringe-worthy fictional account of a couple doomed to fail. Set in '60s Michigan, the novel focuses on the inner lives of two characters—Dulcie White, a bright college student with a love of Tchaikovsky, a knack for writing and a bright future; and Lonnie Saxbe, a deranged yet handsome athlete with nothing but a shoe-selling job on his dim horizon.
What brings them together? The social mores of pre-feminist Midwestern America, when getting pregnant left no option. Of course, in the view of today's hard-right shitheads like Missouri Rep. Todd "Legitimate Rape" Akin, getting knocked up by a violent ex-track-star head-case like Saxbe is what God prescribes for women. Some ideas—and people—never evolve.
But what's truly indelible and incredible about Files' novel is how much empathy she generates on behalf of Dulcie's abuser. In many ways, Motion is about the infinite despair of untreated mental illness. Saxbe suffers the kind of paranoia and suspicion that we've all briefly known, but hopefully have never allowed to consume us. Here, for instance, is Saxbe discovering his now-wife's makeup bag:
He uncapped the red pencil. The lead was soft brown. He wrote Dulcie on the mirror. He put a brown heart around it. With the lipstick he wrote Lonnie inside the brown heart, too. He dumped the mess of her makeup back into the bag and zipped it up. He dropped the bag on the bathroom floor and stepped on it. He heard something plastic go. He put a sock on, and his right cordovan and stomped on the dirty bag until it was flat and pink goop was coming out of the zipper.
As much as I loathed the character and his vicious insanities, I still wished he would find help, or that Dulcie might seek treatment on his behalf. More important, I urged Dulcie, sometimes out loud and much to my wife's concern, to escape and never look back. Indeed, the way Files ratchets up the tension in each chapter, even while oscillating between points of view (those of Dulcie and Lonnie), is worthy of any thriller, and at least an appearance on Oprah's book club. The tension derives from the way Files eloquently depicts the mindset of a person who refuses to acknowledge abuse. For example, this passage, in which Dulcie examines herself in the mirror after being slugged, stabbed me in the heart:
In the mirror I saw my red cheeks and my split lip and dried blood at the corner of my mouth. I was glad it showed, for an instant righteous the way I was as a child when the handprints showed after a spanking, and then glad for the evidence of our change and our intimacy.
"You know what, let's do something," he said. "Go get something to eat and go see a movie. Comb your hair and get your coat. I'll get the car warmed up for you."
The color purple as a badge of marital closeness? Ugh. I won't give away the end of the novel, except to say that this is a harrowing yet absorbing account of abuse, and how it is in some cases, sadly, made possible by two people. Files suggests that Saxbe's aggression requires Dulcie's passivity. It is a horrible thing to come to terms with, and only a novelist of Files' caliber could extend such symbolism in fictional form.
Files, who directs the Pima Writers' Workshop and is a creative writing prof at Pima Community College, has written a taught, disturbing novel. It's a book that deserves an audience, and given its easygoing yet haunting prose, it should have no problem securing one.