Agatha Donkar, who last reviewed Nani Powers’ Ginger and Ganesh here at Art & Literature, now turns her eye toward Nic Brown’s first novel, Doubles. Brown, a long-time resident of North Carolina’s Triangle region (he’s recently relocated to Colorado), debuted last year with the highly praised short story collection Floodmarkers, and his novel, released earlier this summer, has already won equally distinguished kudos. — Art Taylor
By Nic Brown
Reviewed by Agatha Donkar
To say that Slow Smith — tennis player, husband, and the unlikely protagonist of Nic Brown’s Doubles — is falling apart is to miss the correct verb tense. By the time we meet Slow, playing tennis against himself with a child’s small pink racket, he has already fallen apart; he himself says, “I had let myself slide into indulgence,” a nicer phrase for “gone crazy”, and it isn’t until the reappearance of Manny, Slow’s eccentric (and not a little crazy himself) old manager, that Slow starts to shake himself out of it. Slow’s wife Anne is in a coma (and he thinks it’s his fault); Slow’s doubles partner since high school, Kaz, is playing with other people (actually his fault); and Slow is simply coasting along, speaking to no one, in a life that’s ground down to a single daily activity: taking a Polaroid of Anne in her hospital bed, every day, without fail.
Taking the reader along for the ride as Slow tries to crawl out from this bottom that he’s hit, Doubles explores tennis, friendship, and love, and the truly strange lengths human beings go to in pursuit of those things — the idea that we’re all just muddling along, and there’s only so much indulgence you can take before you have to do something else. Slow’s attempts to re-start his life are haphazard, without much plan or much focus, and he moves through the days surrounding a tournament at Forest Hills (once the site of Slow and Kaz’s greatest triumphs) and Anne’s sudden waking up as aimlessly as he has moved through the last frozen months of his life.
At its heart, Doubles is a study in the duality of human natures; its characters are neither particularly good nor particularly nice, except when they are. Nothing really appears happens to anyone, but everything happens to Slow, seemingly in his namesake slow-motion, and he finds that none of it matters, except for when it does. And no one gets a happy ending, except when it’s happy enough. Brown has written a book about love, and all the complicated interactions that surround love. It’s an everyday feeling, everyone feels it, but the ways in which humans love, and the ways in which they hurt they people they love immeasurably and unintentionally, are all unique. Doubles is about the innumerable ways in which Slow has hurt the people he loves, and they’ve hurt him, and how anyone moves on from that.
Doubles is full of the mundanity of daily life, with one exception. Anne, a photographer, had been detailing her pregnancy with a daily Polaroid self-portrait. After the accident happens, even with the baby lost, Slow picks up her camera and starts her project again, with a twist: Anne, in her hospital bed. For a book in which nothing much happens — because even Slow’s late-game tennis matches do not rate lovingly detailed recounting — the overaching image of daily Polaroid photography, the documentation of the day-to-day, is what moves Doubles through its paces. Nothing happens. Everyone ends up where they were before. But buried in the nothing of day-to-day holding patterns, art happens. Pain happens. And love, in its own strange ways, happens.