Richard Wiley, 1987 winner of the PEN/Faulkner Award for Best American Fiction, takes a new path in his latest novel, Bob Stevenson (Bellevue Literary Press, 2016). Having lived in Korea, Japan, Nigeria, and Kenya, his previous novels mainly deal with distant geographies and cross-cultural encounters. Yet, with his eighth book, he brings his storytelling closer to home. Set in New York City, Bob Stevenson tells the story of a psychiatrist who falls in love with a patient and the very-human difficulties of emotions that arise from such a knotty affair.
The novel opens with Dr. Ruby Okada rushing off to meet a fellow doctor and a friend, Bette, for dinner. In the elevator of the clinic, she meets an enigmatic man with unidentifiable charms that grip her attention. What happens next is unravelled in the rest of the novel, as Ruby tries to come to terms with the consequences of her impulsive decision. The mystery of the man in the elevator, and Ruby’s relation to him, is presented through a curious narrative that touches upon the emotions underlying and shaping one’s filial, social, and romantic relationships.
In a metaphorical sense, the elevator of the first chapter becomes the hole to Ruby’s wonderland and when the second chapter begins seven months later, the reader is faced with the puzzle of that wonderland. Ruby is back in the real world, pregnant. She resigns from her position at the clinic and moves out of her apartment. The story is partly a search for what happened in the period between the encounter at the elevator and Ruby’s radically transformed present life and partly an unfolding of its aftermath. As she awaits the birth of her child in her new home, her father and Bette are with her for support. Yet, she is also surrounded by a new set of people that have become a part of her life after the encounter at the elevator. The lawyer, Mr. Utterson, who arranges the legal transfer of her new home; Mr. Utterson’s driver Gerard who has Down syndrome; and the semi-nun Mary Andrew Michaelsonsen — who has also fallen for the mysterious man in the elevator — populate the new and confusing life that Ruby is trying to makes sense of.
That Ruby goes off with the enigmatic man and ends up pregnant are obvious in chapter two. It is also clear that somehow things have not worked out between them. Yet, also in the second chapter, the story is complicated by two names: Bob Stevenson and Archie B. Billingsly. Who are they? Are they really the same person? Is this mysterious man a malingerer or a conman? Who this man with changing accents is, or what Ruby’s relationship with him entailed, are not the only riddles. Through a clever use of dissociative identity disorder, the story provides an exploration of the workings of the human mind, its pathology, and its machination to make up stories, for better or worse.
The wonderland that commences the story hints at the subject matter of the narrative while underscoring the connections among literary works. With such a theme, Wiley locates his own text within the broader world of storytelling. In a way, the literary references that are central to the novel champion the intertextuality of narratives across time and space. The multilayered nature of the intertextuality culminates in a gripping plot as Archie’s mind reverts not only to Robert Louis Stevenson but also to the various characters he created — from Dr. Livesey to Dr. Jekyll — who come to the fore in turn, each interacting with Dr. Okada on her journey. The fictional insight of the narrative is further reinforced by a reflection on the practise of writing a novel, as the Bob Stevenson version of Archie struggles to complete his unfinished manuscript.
This novel of identities within identities, selves within selves ends on a note of the unknowns and uncertainties of life. The question of identity and the self prevails as the key matter in the novel, whether based on a figment of a pathological mind or on a membership to a genealogy.
Burcu Alkan is a literary scholar and editor currently based in Istanbul with an interest in medical humanities and transcultural psychiatry. Dr. Alkan has co-edited the Dictionary of Literary Biography – Turkish Novelists Since 1960 (2013) and Dictionary of Literary Biography – Turkish Novelists Since 1960 Second Series (2016).