In Search Of Himself, by J. Russell Rose

Russell Rose

Russell Rose

Let’s suppose you were to wake up one morning unable to remember your name or your past. What would this cause you to do? What changes in your life would this set in motion? This is the rather interesting premise of Russell Rose’s novel, In Search Of Himself.

Rose’s Phil Martin finds himself in just such a state, and it sets off an uproar within Phil’s closest circle of friends and family. The first stage of recovering his sense of identity involves a hospital stay. But this only sets the stage for an urge to reach a deeper sense of self. As Phil sorts things, his estrangement from his wife grows, despite an apparent willingness by both to heal their marriage. And Phil comes to realize that his profession as a writer suffers as well from some vague sense of loss he’s only beginning to come to terms with.

He retreats to West Virginia to visit members of his family, and this begins a reconnection to his roots. There’s a whiff of new romance in these woods for Phil, but that too is only part of his process of reconnection. Eventually, Phil finds his emotional equilibrium. The new Phil takes a different tack on his writing, and we’re left with the promise of a better, more successful life for him.

Russell Rose has chosen an ambitious ploy for his novel. Phil’s ongoing problems and their ultimate resolution are of a deeply personal nature, and the changes that occur in Phil’s reconnection to self are difficult for him to describe to another (as they would be for anyone else). As a result, external events, the concerns and ensuing drama of family and friends, rarely if ever touch the part of Phil that must change. Even the initial loss of memory in his story seems a metaphor for some vague yearning Phil is hard pressed to express to family and friends – or to the reader.

So. How does one speak successfully of personal metamorphosis in a novel such as this? How does an author draw in the reader, allow him/her to empathize with such a character’s take on reality? We readers must begin to be Phil, to understand deeply what’s going on within him, as divorced from events in his external environment. This, if well carried out, is the meat of Modernist literature.

What could have been done technique-wise to make this identity transfer from character to reader more vibrant? First, more narrative. The author decided to cast his lot with dialogue here, and while dialogue can be a vital part of any story, there seems too much dependence on it. A reader must be able to read Phil’s thoughts – behind his words – to feel his conflicts in both an inward sense and in the ways his inner conflicts seem to be projected onto his outer world. This could be accomplished through a stream-of-consciousness approach, in which we constantly follow Phil’s thoughts, rational or irrational, as he scrambles toward personal peace. Or an external narrator could be used to lead the reader through such conflicts and resolutions.
Since the Southern chestnut of a sense of place seems at the root of Phil’s psychological salvation, more descriptive narrative – of city environs, then of the bucolic West Virginia outback – would help create contrast for Phil’s inner journey.
Second, the story aches for subplots. A novel of this length doesn’t have to have much in the way of action, but strong emotional currents and sub-currents via other characters, can add texture to Phil’s personal evolution. It’s also possible that the story could be shortened a good bit, to a novella, sharply focused on Phil’s concerns, without such subplots.

A writer’s challenge is to find an interesting take on life, and an intriguing set of literary devices to showcase that snapshot of life. In Search Of Himself has the first of these. The second still lies fallow, but that’s something easily fixed through the sweat of literary strategy and judicious editing.

Bob Mustin

One Response to “In Search Of Himself, by J. Russell Rose”

  1. appalachianauthor Says:

    Thanks Bob, I’m not sure I agree 100% with some of your fine points – particularly narrative vs dialogue. I like to leave some things up to the individual imagination or interpretation of the reader – I like “vague” sometimes…
    In a good dialogue interchange, I want to put the reader in the position of almost “eavesdropping” on a conversation.
    J Russell Rose

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