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Ties that bind

An exploration of the delicate, painful connections among us

Antonya Nelson’s new novel, “Bound,’’ is rich in symbolism but bereft of plot. Antonya Nelson’s new novel, “Bound,’’ is rich in symbolism but bereft of plot. (Marion Ettlinger)
By Alec Solomita
Globe Correspondent / October 3, 2010

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Everybody in Antonya Nelson’s new novel is in a bind, including, in the book’s gripping opening pages, a dog named Max, scrambling in a repetitive figure eight through an upended car, her dead owner suspended and “bleeding, barefoot, allover powdered by deployed airbag dust, one palm open like a forget-me-not in her lap.” Caught between duty and self-preservation, Max, although “obeying was her first instinct,” is simultaneously “tempted . . . by the sense of the flowing stream beyond the car.”

Insurance agent Dick Little is also in a bind as he tries to find the driver’s teenage daughter, Cattie, who on hearing of her mom’s death has run away from private school and is living in a squalid house in Montpelier with a traumatized soldier gone AWOL. Their fragile bonding, expedited by their mutual caretaking of a litter of puppies, leads to a bizarre cross-country trip and another story of duty and abandonment. Soon, Catherine in faraway Wichita, Kan., a childhood pal of the dead Misty Mueller, finds herself suddenly yoked to Cattie as her guardian.

Abandonment, adoption, connection, dependence — these themes link Nelson’s relatively plotless novel into a satisfying whole. Sometimes delicately, sometimes a trifle earnestly, Nelson skillfully rings the changes on the idea of being bound.

This idea extends far beyond the connections between people. The author boldly displays her symbolism like a soldier going into battle, flag waving. She employs everything from a dog’s leash to neckties to documents that are “legally binding.” Even the historically real BTK (bind, torture, kill) serial murderer is enlisted, hovering over the novel like a miasma. A veteran storyteller, Nelson nearly gets away with these devices, simultaneously dodging heavy-handedness, cliché, and preciosity.

Misty’s fatal accident reverberates through “Bound,” altering the lives of a dozen characters. The imminent appearance of the bright, sullen Cattie is the spark that sets off a series of domestic detonations in the lives of Catherine and her husband, Oliver, and their odd extended family, whose members suffer bondage in its infinite variety. Catherine’s elderly mother, a formerly loquacious professor, is bound by a stroke that’s left her mute. Oliver is pathetically stuck in his image of a younger self. And his 32-year-old daughter, Miriam, is mired in an angry, endless adolescence.

Catherine, now about 45, is thrown into vivid reveries of her own intense adolescence. A “sheltered child, brought up by idealists, good citizens,” Catherine was drawn to the stormy Misty and “her caustic laugh, her savage muttering cleverness, an odor of cigarettes and sour clothing, of concrete, as if she were preparing for homelessness.” Misty, Catherine tells her husband, was “the epitome of white trash: she had a car but not a dentist.” The two careen through their teens like drunken, promiscuous pinballs until Catherine escapes back into respectability after an affair with a professor and couple of upscale abortions. Misty disappears from her life.

Catherine has long been married to fastidious, philandering Oliver, around 25 years her senior. In the wake of his mendacious earthly passage are numerous wives, daughters, and mistresses. Oliver is newly in love with a very young woman who works for him. He seems the most solidly pinned character in “Bound,” with his unsuspecting wife, his pliant sweetheart, his neutered corgis, his Valium and Viagra. Thus, it is with considerable glee that Nelson unbinds Oliver’s world strand by strand as his looks and energy falter, and his secrets begin to fray.

While Oliver unravels, the generous, unworldly Catherine and her probable namesake Cattie bond so effortlessly that they are soon finishing each other’s sentences. Remarkably like her wayward, subtly charismatic mother, Cattie becomes Catherine’s new best friend as well as her charge.

Nelson explores these connections and disconnects in understated, exact, and frequently witty prose. “[Oliver] was old enough to be Joshua’s father, he was old enough to be Catherine’s father. He scrolled briefly through a mental file of the people he’d spent the day with — was he old enough to be everyone’s father?”

The only serious flaw in “Bound’’ is the omnipresence of the BTK killer, who haunted Misty’s and Catherine’s Wichita childhood in the 1970s. Decades later, he’s back, playing cat and mouse with the authorities. His arrogance eventually leads to his arrest.

Parsing his symbolic role in the novel is difficult, although Nelson tries to assist us by explicitly tying him to Oliver as both of them land in a newspaper article about “Wichitans to Watch.” Oliver imagines his wife saying, “ ‘You and the BTK,’ holding up two entwined fingers.” After the killer is caught, Oliver identifies with him: “And what had doomed this hapless villain? His own vanity.”

This knot cannot hold. One gets the impression that the reappearance of the Kansas serial killer was the inspiration for Nelson’s book. “Bound’’ is a fine novel but would have been better if Nelson had committed solely to the interdependent lives of her fictional and utterly convincing characters.

Alec Solomita, a fiction writer and critic living in Somerville, can be reached at alecsolomita@ymail.com.

BOUND
By Antonya Nelson
Bloomsbury, 231 pp., $25