Next, James Hynes’ dazzling new novel, takes its cue from Virginia Woolf’s writings, especially Mrs. Dalloway. Like Woolf’s novel, Next is also set in a single day, though taking place in today’s Austin, Texas ("Ann Arbor with bigger portions") rather than in post-Worlkd War I London. Like Clarissa Dalloway, Hynes’ protagonist spends much of this one day remembering former loves, questioning his life’s decisions, and wondering what might come next.
Kevin Quinn arrives in Austin one morning for an interview for a vaguely described job he isn’t sure he wants. He hasn’t told his girlfriend, Stella, about the trip because if he takes the job, he plans to move to Texas without her. When he lands in Austin, he is still shaken from the images of a recent terrorist bombing in Scotland. He thinks of his plane as a "Pringles can with wings, packed full of defenseless Pringles." The anxiety of the post 9-11 world is never far from the surface of this novel: as Kevin watches a jet fly out of the city, he is struck by how the "still surprising and indelible conjunction of two formerly unrelated compound nouns--airplane and skyscraper--makes his stomach drop."
Kevin arrives four hours early for his appointment, and kills some of this time following a woman he calls Joy Luck, because she was reading The Joy Luck Club when he first saw her on the plane. Following her leads to a poignant moment not with Joy Luck, but with another woman, Claudia, one of a number of strangers who enter Kevin’s orbit. As the hour of the interview nears, Kevin tries to dissect some of his relationships, like his failed marriage. In a wince-inducing moment of humiliation, his ex, Beth, informs him she is in love with another man while Kevin is naked in the bathtub and she, fully clothed, sits on the bathtub edge. It’s hard not to feel for him. Although Kevin can, at times, be a middle-aged, directionless everyman who joins a "narcoleptic conga line shuffling toward the down escalator" of the airport, he is, first and foremost, a fully realized character who elicits sympathy not just in the bathtub, but also when his own actions aren’t terribly sympathetic.
The style and format of Next is a huge risk. We are in one man’s mind for more than three hundred pages. For most of the book, there is no plot to speak of; events happen by chance, rather than choice. But Hynes finds more life in the mundane than many writers do in an epic novel. To see the emotional mileage he gets out of a pair of torn trousers is one of the highlights of the book.
This book works--and works gorgeously--in part because the style and substance are inseparable. The stream-of-consciousness manner in which the novel unfolds is the only way to tell this story of a wandering man. Kevin’s wandering isn’t just physical, of course; it is also emotional and cerebral. And we can’t help but follow him intently through Hynes’ wandering but never rambling prose. Hynes has managed to do something that seems impossible: with no linear plot to speak of, his writing always moves us forward, sometimes breathtakingly so. The sheer energy of the story telling is enough to pull the reader through this book.
It is indication of Hynes’ skill as a novelist that, even as Kevin dips into the past, ponders the present, and projects into the future, we always know where we are. Hynes can bring us to Kevin’s childhood within a mere sentence, seamlessly sweeping us into a new time and place. These are not mere flashbacks, but essential scenes that keep the book moving.
As captivating as the first two sections of the novel are, nothing quite prepares the reader for the third and final section. The tone shifts as the novel takes on more of a plot, and with that plot comes a heightened emotional intensity that simply won’t let go. In the end, we are left with the feeling Mrs. Dalloway expresses in Woolf’s novel and that Hynes quotes at the beginning of his: "She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day."