Guy loses girl, guy mopes. The story’s been done a kajillion times on film and in print. But Dan Cluchey’s first novel is more than a comedy of manners about a guy dumped by his girlfriend. In this lightly philosophical and funny story about a breakup, Leo Brice, a lawyer, contemplates the nature of time and the afterlife. While he investigates the case of a death row inmate, Leo broods and analyzes his failed relationship with Fiona Haeberle. Cluchey’s Leo tells the story in a self-deprecating, humorous way, with irony and metaphysical comic touches that ease the sorrow of an old story.
Leo begins that story somewhere near the middle. The opening scene sets the comic-philosophical mood of the entire story. Leo and Fiona are 25; it’s her birthday. He tries to comfort her as she waits in a hospital bed for surgery. She’s worried about dying, despite Leo’s reassurance that “nobody dies during wisdom tooth removal surgery.” Fiona tells him she has a theory about the universe, the afterlife, and the nature of time, and it will “just blow the lid off of everything.”
If time is infinite, though, then trillions of trillions of years later – or before! – eventually the exact circumstances have to come together again to form another planet exactly like Earth, even if it takes billions of planets similar to Earth but not exactly like it.
Leo snaps the elastic on her wrist. Ridiculous, he thinks. They’ve had this conversation about an infinite number of lives and an infinite number of chances infinite times before.
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After that opening scene, Leo goes into the backstory of his relationship with Fiona. They move in together when they’re both 22. He’s about to start law school. She’s an actress. They’re “two young, squawking lovebirds barnstorming their way through life’s challenges.” Fiona is flighty, but mostly sincere. She’s concerned about her career and considers going by the stage name Fiona Fox – and lands a recurring role in a moderately successful soap opera. Leo is a reflective sort – neurotic and philosophical and an admitted hypochondria. His “abridged” list of supposed ailments is a comedy-of-medical- errors – more than a dozen various cancers, tumors, extremely-early-onset Alzheimer’s and avian flu. He also complains of “very specific anxiety disorder,” and he might be on to something there. Still, the guy’s terribly hard on himself, often in a funny way.
Leo loves Fiona, maybe more obsessively than deeply, but Fiona’s felt “stuck.” She tells Leo that she has to move to California because there’s no television work in New York. That might be true, but she’s also been seeing her co-star Mark Renard (French for Fox). She makes it clear to Leo that she doesn’t want him to come with her to California – she wants to find out “what I’m like “without us.”
So, Leo obsesses about their failed relationship as he investigates appealing the case of a Michael Tiegs, who’s on death row. Very late in the story, Leo admits that all his life he’s “involuntarily taken on the characteristics and idiosyncrasies” of people around him.” But we’ve seen that chameleon-like characteristic throughout the story. He compares his own sadness to Tiegs’s and, though he thinks Fiona’s theory ridiculous, he’s adopted her vision of infinity. “If it is true,” Leo says, “and we get to come back as many times as we need, then there should be a version of events where everything’s okay.” That’s a version of life everyone hopes for. You probably can’t read Cluchey’s novel an infinite number of times, but it certainly blows the lid off a few things.
“The Life of the World to Come”
By Dan Cluchey
St. Martin’s Press, 256 pages