Time is two-faced. Today it drags you in its wake, slowly, sadistically—tedious indignities nick you like so many potholes; you’ll never get where you’re going. But tomorrow you’ll be there before you know it, unhooked from the rear of the car, unmoving and face-up on the ground; you’ll have nothing but warm memories of the stupid suffering you should’ve savored. Time torments you until it’s through with you; its first face is a bullying sneer and the other is blank.
Time is a torturer and a tease and the subject of Michael Bible’s third novel The Ancient Hours, which manages to be both morally serious and emotionally generous—lyrical yet unsentimental. Told by several narrators across a number of years, the story centers on Iggy who got what he wanted the way we all do: imperfectly, indirectly, eventually. He wants to kill himself; he accidentally killed dozens of others when a self-immolation in the middle of mass goes wrong and he burns the church down while escaping unscathed; he’s imprisoned and sentenced to death; he dies. Bible charts the efforts of Iggy’s peers to figure out why things turned out so badly and follows the people whose lives were unloosed by this tragedy. These characters wrestle with the inheritance of Iggy’s senseless crime while we discover that his crime was only a romantic reaction to the senselessness that preceded it.
Iggy’s life was always awful, although there was a glimmer of hope when as a teenager he found his best friend Paul and his girlfriend Cleo. The three of them embarked on a Jules and Jim project, sharing each other and reveling in their unguardedness. Iggy knows what you’re thinking:
When I get to this part of the story, people always ask me if Cleo was jealous of Paul or if Paul was jealous of Cleo. I never understood that, though. All three of us had something in common. We’d been told that we weren’t like the rest of the world. That something inside us was missing. We became each other’s medicine against the weariness.
This arrangement is discovered and dissolved by Paul’s homophobic, fundamentalist father; Paul is sent to conversion camp and kills himself soon after. Iggy sinks deeper into depression and drugs and is taken advantage of by a few more homophobic predatory men, all associated with the church; he knows nobody will believe him if he comes forward. Between the fucked-up and the faithful, who would you believe?
Sensitive and quiet, Iggy becomes accustomed to people projecting onto the blank canvas of himself. We see how much it hurts to be the object of powerful people’s desires; we understand why he’d want to “[burn] everything to the ground,” starting with himself.
The novel’s masterful second section takes the form of Iggy’s diary kept in the days before his execution. Imagine Camus in Mississippi and you’ll have some idea of Bible’s achievement. Iggy’s unpretentious and philosophical; he confronts all the loss of his life without a shred of self-pity; he’s saying goodbye to time which has tugged him through the mud. It’s a loving and lucid farewell:
Things become clearer at the end. Life was what I did between sunrise and sunset. It’s weird how we exist like this. It’s like when I was a kid I used to love to ride the train to Asheville. I always went to the last car. I watched the track behind me and the way the landscape would come into view. The lonely towns would come into view then disappear in the distance….That’s what I’m thinking about. The feeling of moving forward but only being able to see behind you.
In this send-off, Bible recalls and enhances a metaphor from Sartre’s essay on The Sound and the Fury:
At every moment a line is drawn under events, since the present is merely a lawless rumbling, a past future. It seems Faulkner’s worldview can be compared to that of a man sitting in a convertible and looking backward. At each moment, formless shadows rear up to right and left; flickerings, subdued vibrations, wisps of light, which only become trees, people, and cars a little later, as they recede into the distance. The past acquires a sort of surreality in this: its outlines become crisp and hard—changeless. The present, nameless and fleeting, suffers greatly by comparison; it is full of holes and, through these holes, it is invaded by things past, which are fixed, still, and silent, like judges or stares….The present is not; it becomes; everything was.
The next section looks at Faber, a hapless librarian with a heart of gold, and the young harried mother he helps one day at work. This woman is an escapee from a local fundamentalist sect; she’s Cleo. After Paul’s death and Iggy’s arrest, Cleo hydroplanes her Jeep and almost dies; she doesn’t know it yet but she’s pregnant with Paul’s baby. A group of bearded men rescue her and invite her to join their insular community. And why wouldn’t she accept? “For her, it was a functional thing. She couldn’t have had the child by herself. She couldn’t face her parents. So she thought why not pretend for a while.”
Convictions feigned for the sake of convenience lead to more lies. Soon another member of the cult courts Cleo; “she fell in love with Jamie the same way she fell in love with Jesus, out of habit.” The narrative here takes a sudden and successful turn for the violent—Jamie reveals himself to be a monster and Cleo defends herself with a fire poker (“Without thinking, she went down hard toward his face. Deeply with each blow”), steals a truck, and runs away.
Bible chronicles the wild ways people cope with the humiliating fact of being stuck in time, animals in captivity. Religion, drugs, and love emerge as his characters’ best shot at transcendence although it’s always botched. As Iggy says, “life fails us all in the end.”
Like drugs or love, fundamentalism is mostly another useless protest against death which only brings more misery into the world. But while drugs and love have the initial advantage of innocence—they don’t intend to make you miserable—the power of a certain sort of church to leverage society’s ugliest smugness makes it more than harmful. Dogma amounts to a corny disguise for our own worst selves and if you think it makes you a better person you’re like the baby who thinks no one can see him because he’s covered his eyes. Much of the energy of The Ancient Hours springs from Bible’s hotly leveled j’accuse; what could be worse than a lie that not only wastes our few years here and makes them worse but also tells us not to consider mortality?
In an elegant and elegiac gesture, Bible closes the novel with a section narrated by Cloud, a boy whose parents died in Iggy’s fire though he himself was pulled away to safety. Like Iggy, Cloud is wounded into wisdom. Like Iggy, Cloud gets involved in a delirious love affair which teaches him about loss. After years apart he and his ex-girlfriend Alabama reunite and he tells her, “Take me somewhere. None of the old places. Somewhere fresh.” They drive to Tennessee where they “made love, ordered a pizza, watched black-and-white westerns on mute and fell asleep to the rhythm of the rain. There was a simple dazzling honesty to the moment. What can I say about pleasure except that it is rare in this world without pain.”
That’s the pleasure; here’s the pain:
Deeply depressed, I went out driving aimlessly with the intention of killing myself. In a fit of despair I intentionally ran a red light and almost hit a woman head on, but swerved at the last minute. I pulled over and turned the car off and watched the wind blowing through the trees like lungs inhaling and exhaling. It was like being banished from paradise into the world of life and death.
Cloud is a luckier version of Iggy. He has the same impulse to kill himself and risks accidentally killing others in the process; the only difference is dumb luck. And Cloud resents the fact that chance alone spares him again and again. He obsesses over accident and the way that those things which make us most ourselves are the things we had nothing to do with. And of course the most important accident of his life is Iggy.
In one of the novel’s most moving scenes, Cloud stays up the night he knows Iggy will be killed. “I wanted to see the clock strike midnight. I wanted to know when he was dead. I watched the minutes tick by. Finally when the hour struck midnight, an enormous relief came over me. It was as if I had been carrying a great weight for a long distance without knowing it.”
The link between Iggy and Cloud isn’t accidental but defines The Ancient Hours. Their stories are the same in the only way that matters: both face death. And in the grand scheme of things what happens in ten years might as well happen tomorrow. The question is how we live in the face of the fact that life ends.
It’s an intense acceptance of death as death (and not just a minor speedbump on the highway to heaven) that allows Bible’s characters to really love life and even time, to enjoy the absurd and painful ride it takes us on. We can’t transcend anything or stop the ride but we can meet time’s two faces with our own, fixed in a grateful grin, savoring it all even if in spite. And it’s the line-by-line poetry here that makes life seem worthwhile even in its futility; the act of recording it redeems it; Bible’s artistry replaces the false promise of religion and turns time and its punishments into a sort of pleasure.
The Ancient Hours
by Michael Bible
Melville House; 112 p.