Readers who are fans of the novels of John Irving are going to know right where they are when they read the opening sentence of Julia Rochester’s The House at the End of the World (2015): “When I was eighteen, my father fell off a cliff.” John Venton was taking a piss after an evening of drinking at the pub in Thornton, England, and the suddenness of the accident will transport some of us back to that painfully funny scene in The World According to Garp when, in a moment’s infidelity to her husband, the genuinely-loving and faithful Helen Garp gives a blow-job in the front seat of her moving car to her student, Michael Milton, only to survive the ensuing crash of that car seconds later with the handsome boy’s dick still in her mouth. Or maybe it will take readers back to another place, this one also much like England and it, too, a kind of house, The Hotel New Hampshire (1981). Like Rochester’s novel, it was also filled with eccentric characters, notably, the siblings John and Franny Berry who, for good and ill, are in love with each other through all the years of high school, boys, the football team, the bear, and the other guests who populate the place where they live.
Except that we are never where we think we are; Rochester’s novel never quite takes the comic turn that Irving’s early works do. “You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed,” grandfather Iowa Bob tells John Berry in Irving’s book; and John Berry certainly is obsessed, constantly lifting weights as life goes on around him in the hotel his parents have built and run. John Venton’s children, twins Morwenna and Corwin Venton, are also obsessed, first, with each other, to the point that the whole town thinks they’re sleeping together; and later, with an idea, as they join forces to prove to themselves that their father’s accidental death was anything but.
Morwenna Venton is a thoroughly unlikable woman: snobby, petty, and, except for her infatuation with her brother, uttterly self-absorbed. Corwin runs off, ostensibly to save the world (also an act of self-absorption, as if one man alone could actually save it), but mostly as an act of filial obedience to his father who, on the day that would be his last, advises his son to leave Thornton in order to break the unhealthy bond with his sister. He returns, years later, a victim of burnout, of “compassion fatigue,” to find his sister both unable and unwilling to maintain an intimate relationship with anyone, and to find the father of John Venton–his grandfather, Matthew–toiling away at a great, detailed map of Thornton and its environs, and dying of cancer.
That map, even more than the Venton house itself–is emblematic of the twisted, intricate lives all of the characters lead: the mother, Valerie, who can’t stand her selfish daughter any more than anyone else can, but is trapped in a marriage and in life with her; Oliver, the childhood friend, whom everyone believes is in love with Corwin; Sandra, the girl who, in her teen years, was in competition with Morwenna for boys, but who grows up as the others do not, and comes of her own volition to tend the garden on the Venton estate; Morwenna, who shuttles between Thornton, London, and her would-be boyfriend, Ed, but prefers the solitude of her job as a bookbinder. Lastly, Matthew himself, the elderly, self-possessed gentleman, holder of the key to the entire mystery, yet a man as puzzled and stricken as anyone by his son’s death. The interconnections of Matthew’s map follow their lives, and the artfulness of them reflect the life of the sea he rejected in his youth and the life of the painter–the writer, really–that he later did choose:
“In the moment that he jumped from the boat onto the harbour wall he experienced an ecstasy of love of dry land and a relief to be alive that left a deep impression on his eleven-year-old mind. The thing about land, he now perceived, was that it could be marked–you could leave upon it scratchings and scrapings, and in the future centuries after you were dead, an imprint of you would remain and someone who knew how to read it might revive a memory of you. And the more time you spent on land engraving your story upon it, the greater the chance that there you would still be.”
Hovering over all of them is the memory and spirit of John Venton–the quiet farmer and fiddle-player, whose absence animates all that his family does in the entire book. It doesn’t animate all that they are, necessarily: Rochester wisely makes Morwenna and Corwin self-absorbed snobs long before the two of them confront their father’s end, else we couldn’t stand them at all. So their later quest to find their father–to disprove what they cannot believe–is not, as we might think, the whiny quest of spoiled brats to throw into their father’s face the accusation, “You made us what we are!” No; Morwenna and Corwin made themselves, and they must live with what they made. Their quest is about something else.
John Venton, when he lived, knew that his twin children made themselves. That was part of his daily silence, and his grief. He knew that he had little to do with their upbringing, and knew it even more deeply than most fathers come to know that truth. His wife, Valerie, likens him to an Arthurian knight–a comparison not meant to flatter:
“I don’t think your father aspired to happiness [she says to Morwenna]. He thought it was frivolous to pursue it. When Mark compared him to Sir Galahad at the funeral, I remember I felt an icy hand grip my insides! They were terrible those Arthurian Knights. Implacable! Your father was like that–austere and noble.”
Now I understand why my own stern, patriarchal father has been drawn to the Arthurian knights–the Prince Valiant comic strip, movies like Camelot and First Knight–all of his life. Their austerity and nobility were ideals toward which he was drawn, but the passionate life and culture which the ideals represented and tried to discipline was, in the end, a life too much like our own. It could not be held together, even by faith, magic, or art.
House Venton couldn’t be held together by magic or artistry, either, Matthew’s map notwithstanding. Valerie Venton misjudged her husband slightly. He, too aspired to a kind of happiness that was denied him. Her solution to that problem after his death was to take up with his childhood friend, a man bearing the Irvingesque name “Fuck Off Bob,” for reasons that will become clear in the reading. John Venton, useless, unhappy, lifeless, had no such alternative available. Divorce wasn’t a choice for him: “It’s so messy,” he thought. “People are messy.” He comes to the conclusion that living with grief “is better than slow, torturous alienation between people who have loved each other.” But better for whom? And at what cost? These are the questions Morwenna and Corwin must answer as they relentlessly pursue the ghost of their father.
“You’ve got to get obsessed and stay obsessed,” Iowa Bob says to John Berry, and Berry–powerless to stop the rape of Franny, yet determined to protect her–stays obsessed in a way that makes perfect sense to us. Morwenna and Corbin stay obsessed in solving their own mystery. Even Franny Berry, wise beyond her years, takes the ultimate step of making love with her brother for hours because she knows that if they don’t destroy their obsession for each other, it will destroy them. Yet, we are not in Irving’s world, despite all the resemblances to it. Where we long to be, where we long to live, is in the space between “getting” and “staying” obsessed, before the obsession eats us whole; or, in Rochester’s terms, the space between Before and After we make a choice and are forced to live with its consequences.
But Rochester knows, alas, that life is messy, that nothing–no act, no relationship, no family–is simple, and there is no space between our choices. Unlike the seriocomic world of John Irving, her world has plenty of unresolved tension within. And she constructs for us in her novel a rare thing: a mystery which, in its unraveling, truly will cast an illuminating light backward and force us to reread every page of the novel in a different way from the way we read at first. That’s not what we want to do; it’s not where we want to be. But neither, sometimes, is messy, mysterious, persistent Life.