By Jennifer Spiegel
Bosco’s Going Down Press, 2018
Jennifer Spiegel’s third book, And So We Die, Having First Slept, encourages and shows the value of prudence. It also reveals the tender evolution of a relationship that has been cracked and worn over years of injury, an aged temple marked with hieroglyphics, scars that tell a story about endurance, commitment, and the test of time.
The novel features Brett, who we meet as she sits across a diner table from her fiancé, Cash, who is ten years younger than her. She watches him eat fried fish, and she seems confident, composed, and calculated. Her life up until that point, it is implied, has made her hardened and stoic. And so, her decision to marry Cash even though “he is just a boy” seems risky even though, between the two of them, she seems to carry the upper hand.
The book begins its first section with a rewind to Brett’s college days. It is here that her boyfriend, Miller, likens Brett to the mysterious Greek poet, Sappho, even though their relationship fizzles soon after this nicknaming. Despite this, she travels to Europe with him, Cadence, and Cadence’s boyfriend, Lawrence. Miller and Cadence wind up kissing; Miller and Brett wind up not getting back together as the series of scenes serve as a reiteration that Miller is a jerk.
Part two delivers Brett and Cash to one another but not before a glimpse into Cash’s addiction issues during his own college days and his cross-country road trip he took with a buddy to recover. We also learn that after her graduation, Brett moves to New York City with Cadence to study film, where she lives a love-less life frequently interrupted by manipulative midnight “I love you” phone calls from Miller. That is, until 9/11 happens and a stranger screams at her on the subway, “FUCK YOU, BITCH!” essentially christening her into ‘The Age of Terror,” a self-named meta-chapter by the book’s narrative voice. And later that day, towers now felled, during a phone call to her mother, Brett realizes she no longer “fears God,” thus prompting her to move back home to California.
In an unexpected twist, upon her move home, Brett nearly dies after being hit by a car and lives with severe limitations and brain damage, existing in a metaphorical black hole, until she decides, after an attempt to call/get back together with Miller, that she’s had enough, throws away all documentation of the accident (despite her medical miracle), and forces herself to rehabilitate enough to reclaim her independence. Or, as it’s put, “Be a new Sappho.” This moment serves as her first marked claim she’s made towards the trajectory of her life.
Finally, eighty-five pages in, Brett and Cash meet at an academic conference. They marry, despite each having epiphanies as to why their partner was less-than great; Cash realizing Brett was prone to anger and ridiculous outbursts, and Brett discovering on their honeymoon cruise, Cash “went crazy” and literally trashed their room. It is here that the reader might be fed up with these characters, but the interjecting narrative voice, which almost seems to think for itself, propels the reader.
And So We Die also dives unflinchingly into the dark realm of addiction, naming another meta-chapter “The Zombie Apocalypse,” whereby Cash is completely subservient to feeding his addiction to bath salts. He exists to Brett and their two children as perpetually asleep, unstable, and Brett suffocates in her anger towards him and what her marriage has become. This is perpetuated by an overarching implication of her Christianity—that being a good Christian means being faithful, despite the circumstances; likewise, Cash subscribes to the same line of thinking. The Zombie Apocalypse leads Cash to lose his job and Child Protective Services is called to check on the children, finally prompting Brett to make her second critical choice in her life.
In her Sappho-eque existence, however, Brett never fully reveals who she is and/or what she wants, and so her marriage and her existence seem to just transpire as a series of things that happen to her. In section one, it is reiterated that Miller is someone Brett puts up with but adds no substance nor joy to her life. In section two, Cash and Brett’s marriage is decided on—it is an identity they assume and then perform. Likewise, being Sappho, it seems, is another labeled prescription Brett believe she fills, yet, at no time in the narrative, does the reader experience anything truly extraordinary about her.
And maybe that is the point, insofar as the narrative that people create about their lives. And it’s an astute one, delivered by good writing and a realistic premise. All in all, Brett’s life is reactionary: she has the experience of Europe, she marries and becomes Wife, she bears children and becomes Mother, she is Christian and performs Christianity. Then there is the injury that the text admits becomes a non-issue to her and to those who see her, but, by this point, so much has been explained about Brett it is lost in the descriptions of her. The reader does not ever truly experience Brett’s mind, and as a result, the brain damage subplot seems out of place at times. For example, her frustration with Cash when she was overwhelmed and needed help with the kids, “I have brain damage, Cash. I need help,” is practically expository, not experiential. This experience of getting inside a character’s head is what makes fiction fun. At times, So We Die, Having First Slept dances on the edge but does not fully submerge the reader into its characters’ interior thoughts.
However, by the end, as so promised in the beginning, And So We Die, Having First Slept delivers a love story in which love is portrayed not by romance, desire, or grand gesture, but by acceptance, commitment, and beating the odds. And this, in life, is more often true than not.—Shelley Harp