Conversational Era: Going Home Again by Dennis Bock

Conversational_Era

Welcome to Conversational Era, a new semi-regular collaborative feature which finds us chatting with readers, authors, & fellow bloggers about a myriad of different subjects.

Today, Steph VanderMeulen joins Aaron for a mostly spoiler-free (we’ve clearly marked where the spoiling begins so those that have not read the book can avert their eyes) discussion about Dennis Bock’s latest novel, Going Home Again.

Steph VanderMeulen is a freelance copy editor and proofreader for Canadian publishers and independent writers. She writes the book blog Bella’s Bookshelves, is an avid short story reader, and a stalwart promoter of authors, publishers, indie bookshops, and Canadian literature in particular. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories. Steph lives in Belleville, Ontario.

Dennis Bock’s ScotiaBank Giller Prize nominated novel Going Home Again is a contemporary tale of love, loss, family and separation.  Both Charlie Bellerose and his brother Nathan are staring the prospect of divorce in the face, but both deal with the fallout in completely different ways.  As Charlie begins to examine his life, and the choices he’s made all along the way, a pattern of behavior clearly becomes visible, but can he correct it?  Ultimately the revelation of a hidden truth from the past will combine with a traumatic event in the present to force Charlie to reassess what’s most important to him.


Going_Home_Again

Going Home Again

Aaron: As an American, one of the things I love about watching the literary award cycles in Canada from afar is that I’m constantly introduced to authors that may have never hit my radar screen otherwise.  Over the past few years I’ve had the pleasure of being introduced to some great works by authors like Lynn Coady, Esi Edugyan, Dan Vyletta, and Cary Fagan to name a few.  Now I can add Dennis Bock to that impressive list.  I didn’t read Going Home Again over a two day period so much as I inhaled it.

Both narrator Charlie Bellerose and his brother Nate find themselves at the center of marriages that appear to be ending quite badly.  What I found so interesting about Bock’s approach is that he wasn’t so much focused on the ‘why’ of things fall apart, but rather on what happens to all involved when they eventually do.

Steph, as Bock flashes back and forth through time, it seems as though he’s sending a message not only about the clear disconnect between the way men and women think, but also about the very nature of relationships themselves.  Do you think he’s using Charlie and Nate to build a case for the idea that all relationships, no matter how solid they may seem at the start, are ultimately doomed to fail?

Dennis_Bock

Dennis Bock

Steph: I agree that Bock was concerned less about how things fell apart than on the affects that relationships have not only on those directly involved but those on the periphery as well. But I’m not sure that he was sending a message about the difference between how men and women think. It didn’t feel like that to me. I think it’s more about the various ways we deal with tragedy and loss, which I’m not sure is necessarily genderized. I also don’t think Bock is using Charlie and Nate to build a case for the idea that all relationships are ultimately doomed to fail. The question he asks in the book “Do we fail love or does love fail us?” and I think the answer is neither, actually. At least not inevitably or ultimately. I suppose we could fail love by making bad decisions that are not out of love or that reject it, or by giving up on it.  But if the idea is that we ultimately or inevitably fail love or it fails us, that seems to negate the fact that we can continue to make choices, either to make things work or to end them. There’s also the contrast between the extreme ways that the brothers deal with their divorces. I don’t want to give anything away, but one fails miserably and the other manages to reconcile things, including those things in the distant past, enough that there is hope for all involved. This contrast between brothers and their pasts seems to me the main vehicle through which Bock examines loss and gain.

Toronto

Toronto

Aaron: Interesting.  There were two, maybe even three points in the novel where I stopped and thought, if the roles were reversed right now would Charlie act the same way?  My conclusion each time was no.  Perhaps that’s less of a difference between the way men and women think and react to situations and more of a product of the protagonist’s inability to properly understand the opposite sex.  From his first love, to his wife, to his daughter, most of the women in Charlie’s life seemed to have this slippery, elusive quality about them when it came to his ability to properly gauge their motivations and assess their feelings at any given time.  You had (I think) a much more hopeful read of the ending.   For me it came back to that idea of “why” something succeeds of fails.  If you never examine or address the problems that caused the initial breakdown, then how can you ever hope to repair it?  I see Charlie as being stuck in a repeating cycle in his personal life where he desperately wants things to work out, but they almost never do because he’s unwilling or unable to address the underlying issues.  This behavior finds him repeatedly running from any type of conflict rather than tackling it head on.  He’s certainly made some progress by the close of the novel, but ultimately I’m just not sure that it’s enough to stop him from falling back on more familiar behaviors when he hits the next bump in the road.

Madrid

Madrid

Steph: But then think about the title of the book: Going Home Again. I don’t think this refers only to Spain but also to his family and emotionally in terms of finding his way, or at least beginning to find his way “back home.” This theme is huge in the literary world: that of the prodigal son—physically, emotionally, metaphorically. I agree that there seems to be some kind of constant misreading of the women in his life, as though they’re oddities or mysteries, though I wouldn’t say that’s uncommon of any of us, really. Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, right? I think it goes deeper than that. Probably what you said, about failing to deal head-on with the problems at hand. Certainly, Charlie seems to be an escapist, and he has many places to escape to: his brother’s, any of the countries in which he has schools, the cottage, his past. He’s a wanderer, not only physically but emotionally, which is where the title comes into play again: finding one’s way back, to priorities and home. And you’re right: I did read this as a more positive ending. That’s interesting in itself, the difference between our readings. Anything to do with gender? I don’t know. I felt the tone change as well as read the passages with his daughter and wife as hopeful; it seemed to me that his realizations and decisions had woken him up.

On Bock’s Facebook page, he pointed out an insightful comment that had been made about the book: “we often give second and third chances to the wrong people, while withholding forgiveness from others more deserving (and ourselves.” I saw that too: how interesting! I’ve noticed that of myself, too. Charlie had been wronged primarily and numerously by his brother, yet he was willing to try trusting him again, and it got him nowhere. He wanted too, to reconnect with Holly, with whom he’d had a rocky, unfinished past and who, when it came time to finally face Miles’s death, confessed how things had really happened. By the end, however, Charlie finally realizes he has to let go of his past, of his brother, of Holly, of his new girlfriend, and focus on his daughter and even his ex-wife. As well, repeatedly throughout the book Charlie was given second chances and was forgiven or not judged, for instance after stealing from his landlady and then being taken in by a kindly guy who forgave him rent at first.

Ultimately, things succeed or fail because we do, because the choices we make lead to those ends. But once we’re awake to what we’re doing and what’s priority in our lives—and I think Charlie comes to at least the beginning of this—we lessen the chance of being “doomed” to fail or repeat destructive patterns. Sure, we may slip up now and then—this is what humans do—but I think we continue to fail only if we fail to truly understand what we’re doing or insist on ignoring the warnings in our heart, or think of ourselves as victims, and thus keep making the wrong choices. At the end, Charlie starts to make the right ones. You mentioned he makes progress: I think this alone is cause for hope and an indication that he’s on the right path.

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—- Spoilers below! —-
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Swimming_Pool

Swimming Pool

Aaron: See, that’s the thing.  They’re choices, but I’m not sure that I can say that they’re all the right ones.  When Charlie visits his brother and has that final conversation with him it’s like he’s back to defending him, thus skirting any real progress that he’s made.  Why not cut him out completely at that point?  Then he returns to Spain, a move that I’m not convinced is the best thing for all involved, especially his daughter Ava, who has been an emotional wreck over her parent’s separation.  Just as the girl is finally getting used to the idea of him being absent, he reappears as if everything is okay.  If things don’t work out again, well, who knows how she’ll react.  Going home again isn’t always the best thing, and returning there could cause much more harm than good.

As pessimistic as I am about it all, I do think that your question “does love fail us or do we fail love?” is an apt one, and you’re right, the answer is neither.  Love just magically happens at first, but things don’t just stay that way.  In order for love to stick around you have to work really freaking hard at it almost every single day.  I wonder if Charlie is really up for that test, and though I do applaud him for at least taking the chance, I do think his tendency to run as far away as possible from conflict will be tough to break.  In fact he’s still showing flashes of it in his decision to give Nate’s two sons a little pep talk and then abandon them we they need him most.  Speaking of which…

I think it’s important to talk about the children in the book and the way that they’re each affected by divorce.  One scene in particular, the one at the swimming pool, struck me the hardest.  I thought we might see these actions repeated and this behavior become a theme, but instead at the end of the book Charlie has a conversation where he tells Titus that he’s nothing like his father and that he doesn’t ever have to be.  Do you think that the boy’s supposed groping of the young girl was really an accident, and, to get back to your initial question, how important is it that we don’t fail love for the sake of our children?  Is it selfish of us if, try as we might, we ultimately do?

Steph: Phew, boy. Those are loaded questions. What does it really mean to “fail love”? I think it means to stop trying. To love someone, yet not try to engage with them or act out of love, for whatever personal reason(s). On the other hand, we can try and try to make it work, but if we no longer feel in love with the person we’re with, what good does that do anyone, even the children? It’s not selfish to leave, then, if you’ve tried and it’s not working. One or both will be miserable, and the kids will pick up on this. In this case, to me it’s not a failure, either on love’s part or on the person’s. It’s just an ill-fated match. A choice that demands more choices on a daily basis that we either respond to or don’t.

More importantly, I’m thinking about the book being called Going Home Again. You said it’s not always a good idea to go back, and I’m playing with the idea of the title not being so literal, not referring only to going back to Spain and his family. I think it refers to his search for home throughout the novel, revisiting the past, the places he’s stayed and been. The search for home is a major theme in this novel: whether home means location(s) or people, family, memories, the familiar, language, or even state of mind. And when parents split up, it causes the kids to feel uprooted as well, having to move back and forth for visitations. Their sense of stability is lost, and they’re forced to reconceptualize their idea of home. When they have parents of different cultures, again, there can be a confusion as to where one belongs, to what one identifies best with.

There’s a lot of travel in this book—homes, cottages, countries, places of business—but also the element of foreign versus familiar, whether languages, countries, people, emotions, decisions. Navigating life and finding home: those, to me, are the themes. Sometimes it’s necessary to go home in order to regroup; when we’re kids and teens, even young adults, home often informs our decisions. In revisiting his past, Charlie tries to reconcile with the choices he’s made in order to move on. And at the end, he is returning to Spain in order to recalibrate.


Dennis Bock’s Going Home Again is shortlisted for this year’s ScotiaBank Giller Prize. It is currently available from HarperCollins in Canada and Knopf in the US.


Steph VanderMeulen is a freelance copy editor and proofreader for Canadian publishers and independent writers. She writes the book blog Bella’s Bookshelves, is an avid short story reader, and a stalwart promoter of authors, publishers, indie bookshops, and Canadian literature in particular. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories. Steph lives in Belleville, Ontario.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.

  • Steph VanderMeulen

    Thanks so much for this conversation, Aaron! Let’s do this again sometime! :)

    • http://www.typographicalera.com/ Typographical Era

      Absolutely! Thank you! It was a blast. We should definitely collaborate more in the future!