The Little Death 

A terrorism victim's widow strives to heal her wounds with sex in Claire Tristam's After.

The working title of Claire Tristram's debut novel, After, was Anxiety. "In 2002, when I started to write this, we were in a terrible state of anxiety," says the San Jose-based author, a Stanford grad and award-winning journalist. "There was the sniper in Washington, the buildup to war in Iraq, SARS, the notion of dirty bombs. I wanted to explore how normal people are coping with this level of intense bizarre anxiety that we're living with."

So Tristram, who has covered politics and culture for Salon, The New York Times, and other publications, wrote a story of mismatched lovers: the newly famous widow of a terrorism victim and an Iranian man who is a target for clumsy anti-Arab hostility. When we think about victims and widows, Daniel Pearl and Lisa Beamer immediately come to mind, but Tristram says she was thinking not of them but of us.

"I was thinking about how normal people are just thrust into celebrity roles, both victims and survivors, and how difficult it is to cope with that," she says. "It's as much about Daniel Pearl as anyone else in that position -- Matthew Shepard, Polly Klaas, Leon Klinghoffer. It's a very odd thing about media and how it affects our lives."

The action in After covers only two days as the lovers rendezvous at an abject motel somewhere in California. He is married with kids and suffering in classic suburban dystopia. She is grieving but carrying a worse burden: guilt. The man America remembers as a saintly murdered hero was all too ordinary in her eyes. She didn't really love him, and never passionately. Never gave herself in the way she means to with this dark-skinned stranger who resembles her husband's killers.

This motley couple just wants to be left alone to their sad, semianonymous lost sexual weekend, but the woman's morbid fame gives them no peace. When they go out to eat, she is recognized and he is harassed. They intend to reinvent themselves but remain media creations, politicized figments of an unchallenged imagination. They are mere symbols even to each other.

"One of the things that concerns me about our culture is that we get into ruts about how we think about things so I created characters stuck in one story," Tristram says. Her fictional widow is "not able to move past the rigid frameworks of her thinking about the world. That's the concern to me, more than any specific policy or what I believe is a good thing for us to do right now. Rigidity of thought is very damaging to any kind of progress, on the left or the right."

She set out to write a story with a happy ending and failed.

"I see the tragedy as a missed opportunity," she says. "The protagonist was given a chance to heal on many levels and move beyond her grief, and in the end is left bereft of any possibility of redemption. It's kind of like Romeo and Juliet."

But as Tristram is quick to point out, there's more to the story. The title of the book is significant; it's everything we don't get from the book.

"This is only a snatch of her life," she says. "It's a couple of days where she didn't quite haul herself out of her misery. I have hope that she did. The remarkable thing about human beings is that we grow and survive and are resilient. I'm much more hopeful now than when I wrote the book. Maybe I need to write a sequel."

Tristram raises her points effectively, but it is still unclear whether this book makes the most of them. After is the rare first novel that is too short. For a psychological story, it is surprisingly light going. Two breathless days in a motel room with two pained strangers shouldn't be such an easy read.

In one of the book's best scenes, the widow shaves her pubic hair and then her entire body, re-creating what she has heard about the pre-attack rituals of suicide bombers. It's one of the few times Tristram forces the reader to watch, and one time when the woman's calm, meditative pathos is actually discomfiting. Too often, the scenes in After share the qualities of the sex that inhabits it. Like her characters, the author appears eager to get on with it and then all too eager to be done with it.

But in conversation it's clear that Tristram had much more in mind for After than sex. As for her male character, "I explicitly made him be from Iran because we were involved in a coup that overthrew a democratically elected leader there, and in Iran there are cultural memories that have been completely forgotten in this country. I wanted to explore what life is like when your memories aren't shared by your milieu."

But ultimately, all the reader sees is a man physically violated, the victim of a cultural taboo. The physical acts in After dominate.

"I didn't start out to write a dirty story," Tristram says. "I had the notion that I wanted to isolate these characters and have something happen. They can't just sit there. In some ways it's easier to have sex with a stranger than to talk about your deepest fears. It's an interesting way to explore how they communicate, and it's more interesting for the reader."

It is interesting, and whatever her intent, Tristram wrote a very dirty story, never mind that she is a mom to a young daughter and a younger son. "I'm not going to let my mother read it either," she says. "There are some things she doesn't want to know about me."


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