Death is a blank stare. It’s an enigma for the living. While we try to interpret the concept of death, we’ll never really know it until we experience it for ourselves. What we do know about death is the feeling of loss, the disruption of daily rhythms, companionship, and love. It’s difficult. Grief is the closest thing to death we experience as living beings.
In Amy Bonnaffons’ debut novel, The Regrets, death comes back to life. Thomas Barrett, who has just died in a motorcycle accident, returns to his old life in a vessel much like his living body. His mission is to create an “exit narrative,” which his life story lacked due to an accidental encounter with an angel of death when he was a boy. Once this exit narrative has been established, Thomas can move on to the afterlife, whatever that may be. The book however, unique in its creative rendering of a post-death experience, is not so much about death at all, but the idea of moving on from the past.
The novel opens with Thomas’ moment of death. It’s a hypnotic page-turning hook with lyrical prose: “I see my death coming, the way you see a fly ball arcing toward your spot deep in the outfield. It is round and perfect. It has the exact right shape and heft.” We learn that Thomas is not where he’s supposed to be, as a dead person; an “error” for which an entity called The Office sincerely apologizes. And so dead Thomas returns to his life in New York City to write his exit narrative.
The details of what generates an exit narrative, how one creates such a thing, and why an encounter with an angel disrupts one’s narrative, is left a mystery. We know that back in New York Thomas has a dull existence. Each day, he has to mail his daily routine to The Office in a special mailbox on the other side of the city. Why this is necessary is not clear. What happens if Thomas does not write or mail his routines is also unclear. All that is revealed to Thomas and the reader about the rules of death is that an infraction may result in the form of “regrets,” that is, “incursions of the past into the present. Threats to one’s temporal integrity. An inability to coexist with oneself.” This reader has no idea what that means. Thomas doesn’t seem to understand, either.
In the land of the living Thomas sets up a routine, one in which he doesn’t speak much, and is very much a bystander, haunting his old world without the ability to truly live within it. Bonnaffons does a fine job creating the strange existence here, and Thomas really does feel like a man visiting from the dead. However, this section drags with no real momentum moving the story forward. Finally Thomas breaks a rule. He approaches a woman, Rachel, and pursues her.
The consequences of romantic involvement are vague, but they do exist: “Sexual contact with another person in this state is, perhaps, the most efficient way to incur regrets.” But Thomas doesn’t seem worried. Access to his deep emotions aren’t available; it’s more that we experience Thomas’ re-emersion like a fly on the wall, rather than in his brain. This approach leaves the reader feeling detached from Thomas’ inner logic. The reason he has targeted this woman, Rachel, and what he’s looking for are not entirely understood.
Here, the narrative shifts to Rachel’s point of view. In her perspective, Thomas seems more ghost-like, and it’s his ghostly mystique that makes Rachel fall for him. A romance begins, albeit a very odd one; the consequence, or regret, from The Office’s (unenforced) rule on sex: Thomas’ body begins to disappear. Does he regret? No, not really. In fact, the disappearance only make him more attached to Rachel and they move in together. By leaving his apartment Thomas will miss instructions about how and when he’s been summoned by The Office to move on. But with this co-habitation, Rachel may be having her own regrets. Bonnaffons expertly leaves us hanging as she moves on to the next section.
The novel shifts once again to a new character, Mark, who was referenced earlier in the book, but didn’t carry the importance to imply that he might deserve his own narrative. This is slippery. We don’t know Mark until now and shifting to him so late in the story is jarring. Narratively, his value seems to rely on information from his roommate, Zoe, with whom he’s having a fling.
What’s interesting is that Mark’s section feels the most confident. The language loosens and the narrative is less stiff. While the first half of his section has nothing to do with Rachel or Thomas, it’s the most engrossing. Mark’s heartbroken, having ended his relationship with his fiancée, and he’s searching for a life path. Bohemian Zoe preys on his straight-laced persona. He works at a zoo. He’s a decent person but makes mistakes. His daily motions carry weight, and his living with Zoe, a promiscuous character who’s a bit over the top, chaffs against him to reveal complexity. It’s been years since he’s seen Rachel, who’s an ex-girlfriend from college who never really loved him. When they reconnect, Rachel, too, becomes a fleshier woman. Without the high-concept of death, Bonnaffons relaxes in her storytelling and gives us a deeper character.
The end of the novel leaves readers guessing. Loose ends flail and questions about Thomas’ exit narrative and his regrets remain. Bonnaffons has written a creative, high-concept narrative about relationships that never fully connect. In the end, however, everyone must move on.
By Amy Bonnaffons
Little, Brown and Company
Published February 4, 2020