Robert Stone’s latest novel, Death of the Black-Haired Girl, is a bleak academic story centered on what can—and no doubt often does—go wrong in a student-professor affair, and the consequences for everyone in their worlds. Set in a fictitious, tony New England college, perhaps Wesleyan or Bowdoin transferred to Massachusetts, it tells the story of Maud Stack and Steven Brookman. Stack is a brilliant but erratic student, Brookman a self-satisfied professor with a wife and child. When Brookman wants out and Stack doesn’t want to let go a public confrontation ends in her death. This is not a spoiler because (a) you saw the book’s title and (b) this is really only the beginning of the story. Stone, like Stone, is much more interested in the life and death of the spirit in the many characters he places around Maud and Brookman. Strangely, neither of them seems to concern him much at all. Maud is intensely secular and strangely unfeeling, Brookman is about as spiritually empty as anyone could be, and neither seems to have any time for religion. But Brookman’s wife Ellie is a deeply pious Mennonite, Maud’s father Eddie is a “lapsed” Catholic with more than a little holy water still in his blood, Jo Carr is an ex-nun working as a therapist at the college, and the Dean’s wife, Mary Pick, has the casual upper-class English anti-clericalism of a conservative Catholic who goes out of her way to find a Latin mass once a week but has very little time for the clergy. They all give Stone the chance to explore the tensions of his own religious dialectic.
The somber tone of the story and the human misery of most of the characters do make one wonder if the current fashion for dystopia isn’t a kind of escapism. When we read Margaret Atwood or Cormac McCarthy, even Orwell or Aldous Huxley, are we dreading the future they depict or refusing to face what Stone would probably call the sin-saturated world we actually live in? Stone’s unnamed college is the site of duplicity and cowardice while the Catholic church in which Eddie wants to place his daughter’s ashes by the side of those of her mother is callous and legalistic. Alcoholism, insanity and religious fanaticism abound and against that background the casual lechery of Brookman would have seemed of little consequence had it not led to the unraveling of a young woman who thought she was in love. We read detective fiction for the ordered world we crave in which the miscreant is always punished. But perhaps we sometimes want to distract ourselves in the opposite way, calling up images of a world so much worse than our own. Stone would not let us have this luxury and paints an unflinchingly realistic picture of our contemporary grey everydayness.
At the same time, Stone doesn’t seem to want to give up on faith entirely. Towards the end there is what is surely a kind of private joke as the newly-introduced psychiatrist Victor Lerner tells Jo that “people always want their suffering to mean something” (Viktor Frankl, author of Man's Search for Meaning really did believe that suffering could have meaning). The rest of Lerner’s remarks are drowned out by the sound of the train on which he is traveling, says Stone, so we will never know the full story. But if Stone really thinks suffering cannot have meaning, that “history is poisoned by claims on underlying truth,” why is Mary Pick the most vigorous and sane character in the book? Certainly she seems to represent the hope that eludes most if not all of the others.