The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller

A question all writers must face is “What is fair game?” Whether they draw from their own lives, the lives of others, or from world events, are there any off-limit subjects? Sue Miller confronts this question in her 11th novel, in which she takes on Sept. 11 and the taking-on of Sept. 11—not the events of the day as they unfolded but the loss and fallout that followed.

The Lake Shore Limited takes place in Boston six years after the terrorist attacks and begins with a performance of The Lake Shore Limited, the play-within-the-story that centers on a fictional terrorist attack on a train. This meta-structure is both fascinating and deadly because, while some of the questions that are raised in the play and the surrounding story of how the play came into being strike at the heart of what it means to create something out of nothing, there is no inherent drama in the long, slow burn of grief or in the absence of it—the plot, such as it is, of this largely plotless novel.

The blurry spaces between truth and fiction, grief and guilt, are explored through the eyes of Billy, the playwright ex-girlfriend of Gus, who died on one of the airplanes; Gus’s older sister Leslie; Sam, an old friend of Leslie’s; and Rafe, the lead actor in Billy’s play. Rafe’s artistic and personal journeys are the most interesting aspects of the novel. Through him, we’re invited to understand the process by which an actor doesn’t only embody words on a page but also brings to life a fully formed human being out of what was once just someone else’s idea. Miller excels at creating characters so nuanced in their flaws that they are at times unlikable or even unbelievable. Billy, our playwright, follows this route; she is almost artificially cold in her emotional responses to stimuli. She uses her status as a writer to justify hoarding truth because revealing herself might make her feel guiltier than she already does, or worse, take away from her writing time. Had this been a factor of her grief alone, it might have rendered her sympathetic, but the entire story hinges on this being part of her personality before losing the man she may or may not have loved. She has a narcissistic disdain for everyone around her, especially Leslie, whom she cruelly deludes about her relationship with Gus while using the truth to rationalize her condescending judgment of Leslie’s neediness.

When it comes to arcing her novels, Miller is best at rising action. She is able to make the reader forget that something very bad is about to happen. Families get together for joyous occasions. People laugh and sing and sweep each other into impromptu slow dances, and then something very bad happens and life is forever different. The endings of Miller’s novels, however, are often belabored and flat, as if plot gets crushed by the weight of so much character introspection and self-loathing-guilt narratives. The Lake Shore Limited is excessively hampered by this because most of the story takes place in the characters’ heads. All action happened before the story even began; the novel itself is static, and the specter of drama is only ever a specter.

Alfred A. Knopf, 270 pages

This review originally appeared in Pasatiempo on 07/02/2010