“I am lost,” Charles Boatman says in David Bergen’s new novel, The Time in Between, to a sympathetic expatriate, Elaine Gouds, who he discovers lost, herself, in contemporary Vietnam. Boatman has returned to Vietnam to confront the effects of a village massacre he participated in as a U.S. infantryman in the sixties. Gouds has been dragged to the country by her husband’s infatuation with the sensual delights of Vietnam: hustlers, food, and light.
The novel follows two narrative strands. In one, Charles Boatman is a Vietnam vet who returns home to a wife and family he hardly knows. After he loses his wife, he moves his kids and himself into a caboose on a mountainside in British Columbia. His children grow up as Canadian and escape from his household as quickly as possible. The memory of the war haunts Boatman, and finally he returns to Vietnam, confesses he is lost to Elaine Gouds, and then Boatman actually does become lost. In the other strand, his daughter and son follow Boatman after he disappears. As they unravel the mystery of Boatman’s disappearance, they become enmeshed in the enchantments of Vietnam.
Charles Boatman’s statement, “I am lost,” isn’t a revelation but rather a literal confirmation in his gradual discovery that he lives in a world that has already suffered the apocalypse. And yet life persists just as it has for thousands of years. The casualties of the apocalypse have not been individual people, who manage to survive despite or even because of disasters such as the Vietnam War. The casualties are categories such as families and nations. Boatman travels to Vietnam to recover his identity as a young married American man from the foothills of the Cascade Mountains in Washington State of the United States of America. Instead he discovers the meaningless of these categories. His discovery is the death of everything that means anything to him.
It speaks to David Bergen’s carefully exercised power as a writer that Boatman’s line “I am lost” does not come across as melodramatic. A Manitoban author who has won many awards for his work, Bergen has written a collection of stories and three previous novels. Summaries of his previous work often include the words: disturbed, alienation, and disintegration. In The Time in Between, an aesthetic of destruction is at work. Transcendence can be found in inhalation. The death of Boatman echoes Anton Chekhov’s short story, “Gusuv.” The story follows the title character from a third-person voice with access to his thoughts and sensations. Several people, including Gusuv, die of cholera during an ocean voyage. In the middle of the story, Gusuv is buried at sea. The story continues the end of Gusuv’s thought and sensations to follow his body as it drifts in the ocean and is finally eaten by sharks. The end is beautiful and terrible because it does not depend on human consciousness: “Gazing up at the enchanted heavens, magnificent in their splendor, the sea fumed darkly at first, but soon assumed the sweet joyous, passionate colors for which there are scarcely any names in the tongue of man.” Paradoxically, even after everything is destroyed, there still remains something.
Reviewed by Matt Briggs