In the prologue to Jesi Bender’s intense and beautifully crafted first novel, The Book of the Last Word, we hear from that most omniscient of narrators, who tells us, “In the beginning, there was nothing but me. In the end, it will be the same.” This paraphrasing from Genesis is a tip-off that behind the scenes of the story—oftentimes invisible, occasionally apparent—there is a creator compelled to steer us into (and later out of) the world we are about to enter: “This is a story, at its essence, about two people. Two people who define ‘good’ in very different ways.” The narrator then offers further guidance: “… in order to understand this story, try thinking of all people as one entity, instead of separating them into categories. As one body of many, many cells. Humanity, I suppose.”
Following this suggestion that we view all people as part of a larger whole, Bender drops us into a bleak world, a claustrophobic place that grows even more insular and strange, more unfamiliar as the narrative progresses. But rather than feeling lost, if we heed the admonition to think of the characters as our kin, fellow cells “reworking … a million wrong choices … life in constant repair,” we are drawn into the story of Chimera Aoki and Arthur Noyes, whose lives have been made grotesque by their obsessions.
In Chimera’s life, death and self-destruction dominate. By her own declaration a writer, she is compiling a collection of the last words of famous people, a project to which she is less and less committed. Her work gives her life at least the appearance of a purpose, but she is adrift and spiraling down. The child she aborted haunts her. She drinks too much. She sleeps around. And she finds herself unconsciously pulling out hair and ripping apart anything that would tear (napkins, cuticles, beer bottle labels. On a walk one night, she looks at her reflection in a store window and sees “[h]er skin glow[ing] sickly and yellow in the mirrored image watching her from the darkness. Her eyes disappear[ing] underneath the shadows, leaving two large empty sockets like a hollowed-out skeleton. Turning suddenly, Chimera close[s] her eyes tightly against the image of her corpse.”
Arthur, on the other hand, is ruled by a particular vision of life, innocent life, pure and untouched by the sins of man. But rather than being the subject of study only—a task to which he devotes hours daily, poring over texts and interpreting them—it is also his purpose in life to reclaim what was lost in The Fall: “The only people Arthur could truly even stomach being around were children. They were pure innocent beings, like Arthur had been once for a very short time. They frolicked about like asexual nymphs, ignorant of the world’s toils and thus happily and perfectly innocent. The world was still their Eden. All they needed was love and Arthur, as the corporeal embodiment of the greatest love of all, was going to make sure he loved every single one of them. They needed his love.”
Arthur’s grand purpose becomes more real after he becomes the adoptive father of Mary and Pesach, the abandoned children of his drunken sister. While Mary attracts his attention only tangentially, Pesach becomes the focus of his plan to administer “a few simple adjustments” so that “the flesh could become a conduit for good rather than an instrument for evil.” Driven by memories of past evil—including his own, Arthur’s attempts to spare his son resemble a deviant Abraham and Isaac tale of sacrifice and faith.
When Chimera’s girlfriend, Delores, has had enough of her infidelity and morbid self-indulgence and kicks her out of their apartment, Arthur offers Chimera a place to live in exchange for her looking after the children while he works on his plan. At night, after the children are in bed, they spend evenings together, engaging in enigmatic conversations that seem to circle some important truth but never get there.
Over time, as she considers her situation, Chimera, who has come to see the four of them as “a family in some way,” begins to grow concerned over the way Arthur interacts with the children. These concerns eventually turn to fear, and it is fear that breaks her out of her self-absorption and spurs her to action.
While the plot of The Book of Last Word is engrossing, it is the point of view that makes the novel singular. Ostensibly a narrative built on alternating sections of limited omniscience, there is another voice, the one we’re introduced to in the prologue, that appears from time to time. Clearly wiser and observing from a loftier perch, this narrator comments on the action, guiding the reader to a deeper understanding: “It took Chimera awhile to understand that every man is the myth he creates for himself … To be with a man is to live within their fiction.” Although attributed to Chimera, the language and the acuity of this assessment are not hers. Later we are told, “It is important to remember that we take our rage out on those closest to us. And we take out our love the same way,” a remark that describes what is and foreshadows what is to come.
Multiple points of view are just part of the intricate layering of this haunting novel. Each chapter has as a predictive headnote, someone’s last words—presumably gleaned from Chimera’s collection. In addition, time is stratified, allowing it to be peeled back to show us what is beneath the present. The lives of the characters are similarly peeled back, revealing the darkness within each and, in doing so, illustrating how each is part of “one body of many, many cells.”
At the end of the novel, as the story is moving toward its divined conclusion, the perspicacious narrator appears front and center once more: “I’m here again. I only show up for the beginnings and the ends. Just like a real Father. Just like a good Father does. I don’t care for the messy inbetweens.” This is the Father of the Old Testament, the one whose name was written without vowels—YHWH—just as this narrator’s name, when spoken or thought of or written down by Arthur, has no vowels: G-d, and like YHWH, he is the patriarch of laws and prophecy, of mystery and power.
In the end, he has the last word.
The Book of the Last Word, by Jesi Bender. Whiskey Tit, May 2019. $14.00, paper.
Patrick Parks has had stories published in The Chattahoochee Review, The Beloit Fiction Journal, Farmer’s Market, Clockwatch Review, and elsewhere. His novel, Tucumcari, was published in May 2018 by Kernpunkt Press. He lives with his wife near Chicago.