Carol Anshaw wastes no time in setting the world to spinning in Carry the One, her wonderful and often funny fourth novel. It’s 1983, moments after Carmen and Matt’s wedding, held in the backyard of a hipster farmhouse in the Wisconsin boonies. Carmen’s sister, Alice, and Matt’s sister, Maude, are in an upstairs bedroom, making out. Carmen’s brother, Nick, only nineteen and already a brilliant grad student in astronomy, is in the attic with his stoner girlfriend, Olivia. Nick’s wearing a wedding dress, Olivia’s in a powder-blue tux, and they’re both out of their minds on mushrooms. Carmen, meanwhile, dressed in an “ironic red” bridal gown and visibly pregnant, is having second (and third) thoughts about her sudden marriage.
At 3 a.m., Carmen and Matt watch gratefully as their siblings and Tom, a musician friend, get into Olivia’s car. Though Olivia’s too wasted to drive, Nick’s too high to care. Alice and Maude, “softened by sleepiness and lust,” can’t wait to climb into the back seat and back into each other’s arms. And Carmen, eager for everyone to leave, ignores the druggy warning signs and waves the car down the road. The accident that follows mere moments later not only kills the ten-year-old girl who was crossing the road but forever alters — and connects — the occupants of the car.
As Alice says later, years later, when the musician friend exploits the accident and writes a ballad to stoke his flagging career, “I hate that it doesn’t matter if we see each other. There’s still this connection, between me and him because we were both in the car. Like in arithmetic. Because of the accident, we’re not just separate numbers. When you add us up, you always have to carry the one.”
That’s what Anshaw does in this novel, fills in the characters, adds up their experiences, then spins out their stories in time. It’s about ordinary lives in the contemporary world, territory noisily claimed in recent years by Jonathan Franzen and Dave Eggers and, a bit more gently, Jeffrey Eugenides. But unlike Franzen, who invents unlikable characters and then sneers at them, or Eugenides, who encrusts his creations with enough foibles and quirks that they sometimes slip from sight, Anshaw grounds her people in humanity. She clearly loves them yet doesn’t shield them from their destinies.
Carmen’s story opens the book, and though we’re willing to follow her through the decades, it’s Olivia and Nick and Alice who are the standouts. Of all the people in the car that night, Olivia does the most formal penance by spending a few years in prison. Nick, whose genius for parsing the infinity of space brings him joy and anguish, moves slowly from drug user to white-knuckled abstainer to unrepentant addict. In time, it is Alice who emerges as the lead character, locked in a struggle with an addiction of her own. Out as a lesbian, no small feat in 1983, Alice is in thrall to Maude, who remains closeted. Alice finds herself helpless to say no as her unpredictable lover blows in and out of her life.
While Alice’s love life suffers from one obsession, her art work — she’s a gifted painter — benefits from another. Soon after the accident, she begins to make portraits of the dead girl. They come to her fully formed, paintings of the girl at ten, then eleven, then twelve, as a teen, as a young woman, and onward through her life. Alice knows she’ll never exhibit them, and that she’ll never stop making them.
This was the central point of her art now, to record the girl’s unlived life. Also, these would be her best paintings. She knew this already. She could see a whole world of paintings ahead of her that she wanted to make, and she would make them, but none would be as good as the Casey Redman paintings. She wasn’t sure if this was a gift, or a sentence.
Anshaw, who has said in interviews that her goal with Carry the One was to create a concentrated story within a sweep of time, lets the novel’s chapters cycle through the characters and stutter through the years. Now it’s Nick’s story, now Olivia’s, then Alice’s, then Carmen’s, then Nick’s again. More than twenty-five years pass this way, and the shadow of the accident not only keeps pace, it expands.
Carmen muses about the Big Bang theory of the universe: “From Nick, she knew that the bigness started very, very, very small. But extremely compressed. In the moments before the bang happened, the whole universe was the size of a dime.” In the Big Bang that is Carry the One, Anshaw takes us from small to large and back again, a page-turner of a universe built with deceptive ease and more than a bit of grace.