And Now You Can Go, Vendela Vida’s first novel, begins with a poem. Ellis, a twenty-one-year-old graduate student at Columbia, is stopped by a man in Riverside Park who puts a gun to her head. He wants to die, he says, but he doesn’t want to die alone. Ellis notices that the gun smells of garlic. She notices that the man ties his shoes with double bows. She begins to recite poetry “like a cheerleader gone haywire.” She tries Ezra Pound, discards Yeats’s “Leda and the Swan” (no rape poems!) and Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (no death poems!), sings the William Carlos Williams poem about plums to the tune of a Liz Phair song, then ends up with the first stanza of Philip Larkin’s “Love”:
The difficult part of love
Is being selfish enough,
Is having the blind persistence
To upset an existence
Just for your own sake.
What cheek it must take.
The man in the park listens, and lets Ellis go. And Now You Can Go is the story of Ellis’s release not only from the man with the gun and the double-knotted shoelaces, but from the past, with all its own vivid scraps of perception, as well. This is a tender and sensual book. The tone is casual, but Vida is never chilly or knowing—she just has a light touch. She is clever and dry and funny, and she honors detail. The unpredictable dip and swell of Ellis’s sensibility creates a giddy momentum. Though nothing much happens in the novel, Vida has written a thriller: a thriller about how we love and how we forgive and when and how we have to choose to do so.
Vida recognizes the seamless bond between the profound and the mundane. Ellis’s roommate leaves her annoying Post-its in verse. “‘Cording to ancient lore,” says a Post-it Ellis finds on the bathroom mirror back at her apartment, “She who doesn’t wash the floor/Owns evil in her true heart’s core/O! Won’t you won’t you do your _____?” Poetry in the face of death, poetry in the face of mops. Ellis notes that her roommate
hasn’t talked to me since the night when, drunk, she told me she’d had anal sex with her cousin on Thanksgiving. She’s Catholic and still considers herself a virgin. But now we forget all this. She hugs me, and I smell something familiar: she’s helped herself to my perfume.
Vida’s careful detection and description of defining bits and pieces feel offhand, yet each one pops, like a flash of light, illuminating the scene around it eccentrically.
The man in the park does not kill himself. He does not shoot Ellis. In some ways, this is a spare, impressionistic novel about what does not happen. “Now I’m saying ‘No, no, no,’ in something like a chant,” Ellis says when first confronted by the man and his gun, “and I realize I’m not saying no to him, but to the plot I sense developing.” Ellis seems to say “no, no, no” throughout the book, preferring immediate incident to plot, a kind of protective myopia that keeps the future at bay, always just out of sight. As a child she used to try to count to infinity.
Her narrative-phobia leads her to dump her pleasant boyfriend, Tom. She is drawn instead to a series of random guys she designates with titles rather than names. A reckless, puerile hockey player who stands in the street dodging traffic for fun, has sheets crusted with rough dried stains, and wonders why she didn’t recite Dante to her attacker (“Dante’s the fucking king”) is called only “the ROTC boy.” His appeal, though he puts tacks in his face to show his devotion, is palpable, as are his limitations.
“If I ever see that guy who did that to you….”
“Yeah?” I say, and wait. I’m actually balancing on my tiptoes.
“I’ll kill him.”
“With what?” I say, suddenly enthralled, thrilled, and in love.
“With my bare hands.”
“Your bare hands?” I ask. I come down off my toes, deflated, and look at his hands. “Would that really work?”
Then there is the “red faced and earnest and soapy-smelling” guy whom she calls simply “the representative of the world.” “I’m sorry,” he says, when he meets her for the first time.
He says it like he’s the representative of everyone in the world who’s sorry. He’s the representative of the world, I think. The whole world is sending its apologies through him…. He’s the first person I’ve seen since the incident who hasn’t told me what I should have done, or what he wants from me, or what I should do now. I want to smell his skin close up.
Ellis, reeling from the attack, admires these nameless guys, and feels a comforting, anonymous affection for them. “It seems like there are too many men,” her new therapist tells her. “I can’t keep them straight.” But for Ellis, that is the point. “It’s all nonspecific, this affection, this longing,” she tells the therapist. “‘Nothing is personal,’ I say. ‘Not who you want to die with or who you want to love. It’s all non-specific.'” She is drifting in order not to be swept up.
By Christmas, the man has still not been caught, though he has begun writing “I’m sorry” on the police drawings posted around campus, and Ellis goes home for the holidays. Her mother is Italian, a surgical nurse who is the reason Ellis could recite poetry at gunpoint. She made Ellis and her younger sister memorize a poem a week. “When my father was gone, I’d sleep in my mother’s bed…every night,” Ellis remembers,
hoping it would make her feel less alone. I’d watch my mother go through her nightly rituals: applying her hand cream, putting aside her book, checking the alarm clock twice. When I was certain she was asleep, I’d turn off the light.
There were many such nights, for Ellis’s father disappeared for four years when she was fifteen and her sister, Freddie, thirteen. “One day we came back home from the grocery store and found him on the couch watching Wheel of Fortune; in all the time he’d been gone, my mother never changed the locks.”
Freddie is also home for the holidays.
When we were young, most of her diary entries were about how she’d been snooping in my diaries and was worried about my choice of friends, the alcohol I drank with them at parties, the lies I told my parents. After that, I started writing only positive, Panglossed versions of events.
Ellis spends the holiday listlessly, aimlessly, stomping around in oversized decorative clogs to annoy her mother, listening to her father’s stories, telling an old boyfriend she was hog-tied and raped, until one day her mother comes home with seventy-two pairs of sunglasses. Her mother is accompanying a group of ophthalmologists and other volunteers to the Philippines, and she asks Ellis if she would like to join them. Ellis has drifted into a mission.
In the Philippines, the string of boys is replaced by a line of people waiting for surgery, thousands camped outside the hospital, and Ellis is carried along by their need, by the determination of the doctors, by heat and fatigue and optimism. Back in California, she goes camping with her mother and sister. Her emotional tone has changed, gained intensity, the way colors deepen with the rising of the sun. Instead of resisting as her story unfolds, Ellis begins to allow herself back into her own life.
During the four years that her father was away, Ellis’s physics teacher taught the class the concept of infinity.
I cried about it every night for months…. If my father was never coming back, I wanted to know how long never was, how long infinity lasted.
She sat on the roof every evening watching the other fathers come home and trying to count the days until infinity. It was only when the teacher told them about an astronaut circling the earth, who, without gravity, could not tell when it was time to sleep, and so could not count the days, that Ellis stopped counting. For Ellis, gravity and numbered days are the same as waiting. Counting is judging. And it is only when she stops counting that she is able to forgive her father. “My life is for me,” Larkin wrote in one of the stanzas Ellis could not recall in the park. “As well ignore gravity.” But that is just what Ellis chooses to do, and it is only in that way that she can take hold of her life.
Ellis does eventually find the man who threatened her. The ROTC boy drags him to her door, gagged, at gunpoint. “I see the gun and feel it at my temple,” Ellis says. “I look the gagged man in the eyes and he looks back at me…. Behind the bandanna, his mouth is moving. I know what he’s trying to say to me.” Everyone is waiting for her to identify him but what she sees is more than the man in the park. She sees a man who is sorry and she forgives him: “I know sorry men when I see them…. I’ve seen a sorry man come home after being away four years.”
The world in this novel is brisk and insistent, and Ellis cannot finally resist it. Both the stubborn assurance and the dazed uncertainty of youth give way to possibilities. The world can be divided into two kinds of people, Ellis realizes:
Those who would take their lives if they thought things were bad enough, and those who, even if they were on the brink, like the man from the park, would see their error and turn back, sprinting fast and humming with relief.
Oddly, the man in the park, the man who chose to give himself, and her, a second chance, has become an inspiration: sprinting fast and humming with relief. And Now You Can Go is about choosing that second chance, choosing to take it and choosing to give it.
December 18, 2003