Green Hills Literary Lantern

 

 

 

 

Bewilderment 

Onofrey, Michael. Bewilderment: A Novel. New York, NY, Tailwinds Press, 2017.

Note: MICHAEL ONOFREY was born and raised in Los Angeles. Currently he lives in Japan. Over seventy of his short stories have been published in literary journals and magazines, in print and online, in such places as GHLL, Cottonwood, The Evansville Review, Natural Bridge, Snowy Egret, Terrain.org, Weber--The Contemporary West, and The William and Mary Review.

 

Past and present, place and memory coalesce in Michael Onofrey’s Bewilderment. Protagonist Wade Ricky reveals, non-chronologically, major events in his life stretching from his twenties to fifties. He is a middle-aged man caring for his ailing mother. He is a young cyclist exploring India. He begins a relationship with an artist. He aids a blind man in filming pornography. He abuses drugs and other substances. He develops alcoholism. Despite the wide range of experiences in Wade’s life, there remains one constant: He always ends up alone due to his own passivity.

The first chapter immediately establishes Wade as more of an observer than an actor. An older Wade finds himself an unwilling guest at a Christmas party. When not tending to his mother (later revealed to be suffering from dementia), he secludes himself in a corner. Descriptive prose presents Wade as perceptive, able to notice minute details about his surroundings, such as when he prefers to eavesdrop on two other guests rather than speak with them directly:

The two men are talking about someone whom they know, a mutual friend, who hasn’t picked up on the spirit of the Lord, and it strikes Wade that the men view their friend as unenlightened. It’s not exactly a put-down, but there is a distinct sense that their friend is out of step and unfortunate, and so there is a sense of criticism, but it’s not heavy or malicious. It’s more of an in-group-slash-out-group discernment (10).

It is in this observation that readers experience Wade’s tendency to drift far into his own thoughts. Yet almost ironically, by acknowledging that others are ignoring Wade just as he does them, Wade feels a diminished sense of interaction with his environment. From this safe distance where “even though [he is] still an onlooker [there] is now another dimension, a back-and-forth quality, a dual quality” (12). It is this “dual quality” to his role as an onlooker that sets the tone for the entirety of the novel, with the narrative flowing between Wade’s middle-aged life rooted in Los Angeles to his memories from over thirty years abroad.

The first major flashback has Wade cycling across India. While there, he contracts hepatitis and meets a German woman, Herta, who begins an affair with him. The emphasis on the affair for Wade is less on how he experiences it physically as opposed to how he detachedly observes this almost surreal experience happening to him. To create this effect, Onofrey consistently describes Herta in active terms while often relegating Wade to voyeur, as with their sexual encounters: “[u]nder her tutelage Wade’s body gathers itself and tumbles as if clairvoyance were at work” (34). In contrast, Onofrey omits many of Wade’s actions, such as Wade’s decision to let Herta accompany him, moving straight to the next scene. This companionship ends much as it began, with Herta’s active decision-making. Wade’s retelling of their split casts it as so much of a non-event that one could easily miss it if not reading carefully. Other endings in the novel, no matter how jarring or traumatic (relationships, travels, death), are also described in an anticlimactic fashion, leaving Wade alone.

Despite Wade’s many adventures, Bewilderment is not a novel about adventure or travel. Instead, these many experiences displace and detach its protagonist from both place and other people. The only thing left for Wade to permanently root himself in is his own mind, which leads him to forsake intimacy, unnecessary action, and the responsibility tied to both (133, 196). Keeping to himself gives Wade more freedom than actively participating in his own adventures himself “for there are no restrictions on what you can do in your mind” (88). Onofrey describes more exciting parts of the novel, like Wade beginning his illicit drug activities, in the same manner as him painting his mother’s house. As such, Bewilderment has a more monotonous pace, which could deter some from reading it. However, this relaxed pacing allows readers the opportunity to sit and muse much as Wade does.

Within this reflective space, readers can question Wade’s actions, as the novel provides no clear judgment on his life. The readers are left to make their own decisions on whether they agree with Wade’s forfeiture of intimacy for privacy and solitude, making Bewilderment a novel that provides a nuanced, morally ambiguous view on the concept of loneliness and passivity.

 

Kristen Greif is an English MA student at Truman State University where she also teaches a Writing as Critical Thinking class. Her caffeine intake increases the closer she gets to her graduation date.