Overture by David Slavitt
Outpost19, 2012
ISBN 9781937402228, print, $18.95
ISBN 9781937402211, Kindle, $9.99

David R. Slavitt's novel, Overture, is told from a novelist's point of view. The first part chronicles his reflections as he waits for the results of a test that could reveal that he has colon cancer. As he waits, he remembers and explores the significance of early memories, including those surrounding a hearing deficiency that resulted from an early ear infection. The onset of the hearing loss is associated, for the narrator, with a traumatic journey to California. The trip represented for his mother a trial separation from his father. This vignette introduces the important theme of how we deal with loss, especially the loss of loved ones. He goes on to explore the aging of his body, the often distanced and business-like quality of our medical establishment, the relationship between body and mind, the relationship between reader and writer, the presence within the adult of the child's "small, remote, but not entirely forgotten self."

And Proust. A reading and exploration of Proust's work and of his life permeates Overture. Along with that we're given lessons about (or snippets on) other figures and thinkers, Plato and Aristotle, just to name a few. Does this make the novel primarily one for literature majors? Or classicists? That's hardly the case. Rather, Slavitt's author-narrator's voice is vulnerable and sensitive, along with being erudite. That voice won me over. The narrator's readings of Remembrance of Things Past (and other related works) occupy his thoughts as he waits to learn his fate. The parts concerning Proust's own ailments and the medical practices of the time, also, are told in ways that are entertaining and that connect to the novel's trajectory.

The vessel is a dominant image throughout the novel. The body is the "poor vessel" for the individual. Novels can become for the reader "vessels for our innermost thoughts and vehicles for our emotions." I felt the suspense and anxiety of the narrator as he waited for his test results. There are memorable descriptions of his seeing childhood friends, youthful acquaintances, even famous cultural figures in the guise of others. These come as visitations from the past or from a world beyond death in the narrator's "time of trial." Questions arise, such as: Why do some live, yet some die? There is a sense throughout Overture of the writer, and potentially the reader, figuring out the answers to such questions, or at least possible answers.

In the face of fear and death, there is also bravery and life. Slavitt's exploration of such compelling and universal themes is itself a brave act (as alluded to in some of the narrator's own remarks in the novel). The writing is full of surprise and insight growing out of the story's exposition. Like Paul Auster's 2002 novel, The Book of Illusions , this work shows how the writer-narrator, when well-conceived, has an uncanny knack for going straight to the heart of matters that concern our deepest selves.