By Connie Josefs
In the opening of Charles Baxter’s The Feast of Love, writer/character Charlie Baxter wanders alone through the streets of Ann Arbor, suffering from insomnia. He finally runs into his friend Bradley, who offers this advice:
“Listen Charlie,” he (Bradley) says. “I’ve got an idea. It’ll solve all your problems and it’ll solve mine. Why don’t you let me talk? Let everybody talk. [. . .] Everybody’s got a story, and we’ll just start telling you the stories we have.” (16)
With these words, Baxter sets up the form of his novel: a “Rashomon”-style narrative where a group of characters take turns telling their stories.
Analysis of dramatic structure sets forth the concept of a main character as the point of connection for the reader. By connecting to this character and following him or her on a journey, the “audience” becomes involved in the story. However, in The Feast of Love, there seems to be no clearly defined protagonist. Unlike the traditional narrative where the journey of a central character is developed over time, this novel continuously shifts from one character to another, exploring various points of view. How, then, does the reader stay connected to the story? In other words, in the absence of a clearly defined protagonist, who or what moves the story forward?
In her article in “Poets & Writers”, Laura Morgan Green suggests that in the case of the “novel in stories”, the narrative is held together “by the gravitational pull of a core consciousness”, a force that unifies the “fragmented and inconsistent nature of lived experience” (Green). In The Feast of Love, this “core consciousness” is identified in the opening of Chapter Two, as Bradley elaborates upon his idea for Charlie’s novel:
“Every relationship has at least one really good day. [. . .] That’s the day you remember. [. . .] I once talked to a woman who said, ‘Yeah, that’s the day we had an angel around.’” (17)
As the story progresses, the presence of “an angel” – in this case Eros – emerges as the connecting thread. Like all gods, Eros cannot be viewed directly. We are aware of him only by his effect upon those who have fallen under his spell, as though he is passing invisibly through this small community, touching different people at random moments. These moments are experienced by the characters as epiphanies, moments that expand their awareness of themselves. At a Halloween party, while dressed up as Venus, Chloé experiences herself as the goddess:
“I once was Venus. I didn’t look like her. I was her. [. . .] I ruled that party. I had a star in my forehead. People saw that it was me, that I was making it happen, and they were in awe. Look out, I’m coming, it’s Chloe, and I’ll make you come, too, and I’ll point at you and you, and you can just try to ignore it, but you’ll be helpless.” (299-300).
Diana, the acerbic and abrasive lawyer, becomes aware of her soul for the first time while making love to her boyfriend, David:
“And then we were making love, calmer than we usually do it, and I’m looking at David, and my soul – I can’t believe I’m saying this, but it’s what happened – became visible to me. My soul was a large and not particularly attractive waiting room, just like in a Victorian train station with people going in and out. In this waiting room were feelings I hadn’t known I had, discarded feelings, feelings with nowhere to go, no ticket to a destination. It turned out that I was larger than I had known myself to
be [. . .]” (210).
Each character has their moment: Bradley, when he finally meets the love of his life; Harry, when he is able to stand up to his son (tough love); Kathryn, when she views a gesture so beautiful, she falls in love; David, when he talks about hunting and his brush with mortality. Even “the Bat” is propelled by the force of Eros when he nearly rapes Chloé. As Harry later explains:
“Eros, I told Chloe, is a devil as well as an angel, the faces are the same but the expressions are dissimilar. Every positive attracts a negative and must contend with it.” (240).
For better or for worse, once touched by the god of love, a character is no longer the same. As Chloé puts it:
“Before I met Oscar, I was fine. But then I met him, and I knew him, and I loved him, and he died, and after that, in an Oscarless world, I couldn’t go back to the way I was before I knew him, because I wasn’t the same person anymore. He mutated me.” (p. 259).
One by one, characters fall prey to the power of the love god. Some, like Chloé and Diana, feel the effects directly. Others, like Oscar, provide a channel for Eros to do his work. When Oscar dies, Chloé is convinced that he will return to her in another form, as though Oscar has become replaceable, a mere vehicle for Eros.
According to John Gardner, one of the requirements of a central character is that he or she act, and not simply be acted upon. He goes on to say that “no fiction can have real interest if the central character is not an agent struggling for his or her own goals (65). By acting upon those around him, Eros becomes the invisible protagonist, causing characters to behave in unexpected ways and inspiring revelations about the nature of love. He is the behind-the-scenes agent, the force that drives the story forward and lures the reader in. In the end, he achieves his goal by imbuing the characters with passion and the desire for love. He transforms their lives by drawing them into his vortex and changing how they think and feel: Chloé discovers her feminine power, Diana becomes vulnerable, Harry learns to say no, Bradley feels his pain.
In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell describes Eros as impersonal, “a kind of seizure [. . .] a total physiological, psychological explosion” (186). Likewise, in The Feast of Love, characters experience love as a kind of possession. They emerge from it disoriented, like someone waking from a dream, uncertain of what happened or why. As readers, we too are caught up in the fervor of the moment and are less interested in the cause and effect of any one character’s experience. We are able to connect to a succession of overlapping tales because the stories reflect back upon a common presence: that of Eros. This presence evokes a dreamlike atmosphere, a mystical twilight that invites the meeting of spirit and matter. Charlie, the writer/character, sums this up at the end of the novel:
“One of the lyrical consolations of insomnia is that the sufferer becomes acquainted with the special luminous emptiness of 4 a.m., these spectral stirrings when, just before dawn, the spirits seem to be abroad and are moving slowly toward you for reassurance [. . .] I have the sensation that I’ve become invisible [. . .] All the voices have died out in my head. I’ve been emptied out.” (305-7)
In the presence of Eros, the narrative shimmers, and the reader too falls under the spell of the god of love. Traditional concepts of reality and narrative structure fall by the wayside in this magical world of meta-fiction, where author is author/character, and spirit materializes into form. Ultimately, the novel itself becomes an instrument of Eros, a vehicle for the love god to reach into the reader’s world. It rekindles our own experience of love and transports us to a more luminous place.
Baxter, Charles. The Feast of Love. New York: Vintage Books, 2000.
Campbell, Joseph. The Power of Myth. New York: Doubleday, 1988.
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
Green, Laura Morgan. “Fiction 21c: The Novel in Stories.” Poets & Writers