Jessica Widner’s Interiors powerfully and profoundly goes beyond one man’s tragic and mysterious death to ask questions about the afterlife, alternative worlds, embodiment and the (inter)relationships that make up life itself.
Steeped in an air of mystery and trepidation, Jessica Widner’s Interiors opens with a body lying cold on the autopsy table. It belonged in life to the poet Owen Beausoleil, a man whose vibrancy and rich interior world is survived only by a sparse poetic oeuvre, and the manner of whose death – presumably by drowning, a suicide – is complicated by the presence of bruising which marble his otherwise smooth and statuesque skin. It bears the shape of a brief, last struggle for survival.
To Noah Lang, the pathologist in charge of carrying out the autopsy, this sight – of a corpse so remarkably well-preserved it seems to threaten “to cross a boundary, as if not properly dead” – is unnerving despite all his experience as a medical examiner, so much so it becomes a conduit for an overwhelming set of emotions thus far entirely unknown to him. Taking a scalpel to Owen’s body fills him with the sensation of the compartments of his own life beginning “to collapse into one another; his own flesh opening beneath his instrument, his insides mixing with the air around him.” A man of science, Lang interprets this as his fear of contamination, of exposure, and brushes it aside as the mere product of a long and tiring day. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to him, something does indeed begin to pass between him and this empty vessel that only recently housed a man he never knew – something that ultimately pulls him towards Lola, a woman who did know and love Owen, and who now finds herself similarly haunted by him. As Lang’s relationships with Lola and with his clinical psychologist wife Kitty wax, wane, and weave together in both unexpected and foreseeable ways, the three of them become increasingly unable to untangle their lives from the echoes of Owen’s death and from the mysterious circumstances in which he met his fate.
Outwardly presented as a mix of domestic drama, crime fiction, and the paranormal, Interiors probes a question far more arresting than the facts of one man’s tragic and mysterious death. The object of this investigation is death itself, and what it does to us: to the living, and to the dead. In immersing readers into the strange and haunting details of her characters’ lives, the novel urges us to think “about what is lost, other than matter,” about “that which was not matter to begin with” – the inner life, “the dreams we don’t remember, the fantasies that unspool in our heads before we fall asleep. The thoughts we have that are too terrible to name. The memories, memories of things that happened when we were the only ones there to witness them. Things that leave no record. The invisible things that expand within the self.” Widner’s approach to the age-old question of the after-life here eschews the religious idea of the soul, choosing instead to reflect more philosophically on the nature of experience in a here-and-now that stretches out from and towards both past and future. Meditating on the meaning of Owen’s passing through an ironic engagement with the theories of Aristotle, the idea of quantum immortality and the redistribution of matter, amongst others, this bracing debut attempts to rewrite the genre of the ghost story, fashioning it into one where mystery is something that arises from the limits of the known and the knowable; where the fantastical exists chiefly within reality and those recesses within it that allow the mind to wander.
For Widner, the difference between the known and the knowable is seemingly that gulf between desire and experience, which is a space often occupied by fantasy. Interiors thus works to lyrically and ontologically connect these three elements, interrogating the ways in which our desires take shape and animate us in both flesh and voice. In this, the novel is firmly polyvocal, and its narrative moves seamlessly between Owen, Lang, Kitty, and Lola’s respective points of view, bringing their inner lives – their memories, their conscious and unconscious thoughts – into a sort of continuum through which the interconnectedness of their fantasies and actions can be meaningfully understood.
Here, the enigma of Owen’s death – with his consciousness trapped in a sort of limbo reminiscent of the kind deployed by Shehan Karunatilaka in his 2022 Booker Prize-winning novel The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida – unfurls in parallel to the everyday realities of the other characters’ flawed lives: as Kitty becomes suspicious of the nature of Lang’s entanglement with Lola, we learn that desires can be pre-empted, predicted, and even imagined into existence, stretching out from our innermost thoughts into the lives of those we regard as our ‘others’. Kitty initially accuses Lang of using his fanciful connection with Owen as a cover for his real desire for Lola, but then his version of reality – and the fantasy at its center – begins to impinge on her own. Whilst Lang and Lola seem to be drawn to each other, at least in part, due to the way their inner lives are shaped by the physicality of their respective occupations as medical examiner and dancer, the therapist’s domain lies in the mind and in the concerns of the intrapersonal. The latter is something that also occupied Owen in his work as a poet, and thus leads him to seek Kitty out as a ‘medium’ who can translate him to the others.
However, the separation between the physical and the mental implied here is but arbitrary, and Widner illustrates this in the manner in which all four of her narrators are eventually brought together into a new, shared sense of intimacy that belies the possibility of a singular, objective reality. As Lang, Kitty, and Lola become further embroiled in each other’s lives, Owen too progresses from communicating with the living in their dreams to communing with them, almost corporeally, in a dreamlike sequence that takes place on the faraway shores of Derryanne Abbey in Ireland, where the imperceptibility of the separation between earth, sky, and sea, as well as between the living and the departed, presents the characters with a sense of renewal hinged on liminality. This final, hypnotic scene where lives and landscapes become one instils an understanding that the ‘containers’ of our lives, the borders we draw – between the physical and the mental, material and non-material, alive and not – are all permeable, constantly collapsing into and drawing on one another. While we never do quite find out the true events that led to Owen’s death, the picture painted for us is so soaked in suggestion that several versions of events seem possible at once. Interiors, then, presents a radically different conception of the world, treading on a theoretical ground distilled and made ebullient by narrative, and one that echoes with the likelihood and the presence of an Otherwise.
The distinction between fictional characters and the reader is also blurred here: for me, reading this novel was a sensuous, embodied experience, one whose events made me feel like I, too, was implicated and altered by them, and where every turn of phrase felt like a beat in the time that I was living through. Though I could apprehend the infrequent slips in the story, the gaps and stops that could not lower or satisfy the heightened curiosity incited in the reader, I nevertheless found myself immersed in the tides of this book, and filled with its echoes long after I was done reading it. Certainly, there is something sublime in the fact that though the mystery at the heart of Interiors remains one through to the end, it never falters in reflecting and revealing the alchemical nature of our own interior worlds to ourselves.