I couldn’t read this wonderful novel without thinking of Barney’s Version. There are real parallels. I’m not saying Parker had Richler’s modern classic novel in mind, but I felt the parallels throughout.
Parker’s protagonist Hillary Greene is writing her father’s memoir, a famous and celebrated novelist, because he is losing his memory and ability to write due to ailing health in old age. In BV, Barney Panofsky tries to make sense of his own life in hindsight. He made a lot of money over the years but, surrounded by artists in youth who became not just successful but iconic, he is finally trying to give writing, art, a shot. He himself is suffering from Alzheimer’s.
Richler lets the reader judge whether Panofsky serves up his memories self-servingly or if he genuinely can’t remember. Is he misremembering old stories to paint a flattering portrait, is he actually losing his memory, or both? Panofsky was found not guilty of a murder in court, but public opinion isn’t so sure. He’s been such a shit for years, murder is not out of the question.
Hillary Greene is also an aspiring writer trying to grapple with Alzheimer’s (albeit not hers, her father’s), but it’s a woman in charge of controlling a man’s legacy. She will have the last say. Will she, though? She’s set to write Baby’s memoir in his name, not her own.
Baby looms over her, dominating her with his Big Writer energy. Family drama also weighs on her, to put it lightly. Even when she gets the power, she doesn’t totally have it because, and this is one of Parker’s themes, power needs to be claimed, not just handed. Greene might have the power to write how she pleases, but it’s not clear she will, or can. In life, there are complicated forces which interfere, and serve to prevent the full truth from coming out. These forces should be specified, since together they form a main theme of Parker’s novel.
a) Greene can’t fully trust what her father says–maybe he misremembers, or is lying, or is honest but isn’t divulging everything
b) Greene can’t fully remember her own memories, even recent ones. Memory plays tricks on her
c) The collision of a) and b) create a third anxiety about uncovering the past accurately; even when you get things right, you second-guess yourself
d) Her father’s agent, fans–the world of The Writer–has a hold of Hillary, and undermine her mental independence. Charlie Rose shaped how people see him, not she will?
Panofsky writes his memoirs to clear his reputation, whereas Baby’s (Greene’s novelist father) public reputation is still in tact, despite threatening rumours of relationships with young women students that caused small-scale backlash in certain spheres of their lives. That’s the public darkness. In private, Hillary’s sister Pauline committed suicide, and Hillary learns about some dark family secrets while writing her father’s memoir. Modern DNA tests are a convenient plot device for drudging up old the unsavoury past.
The reader would love for Hillary to be hellbent on istina, an inner-light of truth truth-quest where only full honesty matters in the public and private reckoning. But in real life things are messy, and she needs to contend with how her family and other people will react to ugly truths becoming public. She needs to contend with herself processing it. There are levels to it.
Baby is her dad. As a Major Writer with a Calling, being in his presence in youth shaped and influenced her and her world-view (famous people growing up in her household were Jesus and Kafka). Literary readings were a natural part of her life in youth.
Despite the promise of the novel’s title, it feels like her father’s beastliness is not fully described, left unsaid. There’s abuse that feels like it occurred, but isn’t explicitly stated. At first I thought maybe I missed something. Did Parker describe Baby’s worst sin, and I didn’t pick up on it? I’d like to avoid spoilers here, but it’s interesting how a novel called “What We Both Know” leaves a fair amount, perhaps even the main thing, ambiguous.
Traumatized people seldom remember everything perfectly, in fact they often totally forget. Their memory blocks things out, as if to mercifully shield them from the traumatic experience.
WWBK posits some disturbing thoughts: In the Me Too era where we’re trying to reconcile and heal from past, what if the full truth can’t always emerge, despite the teller’s best attempts? What if knowing about the dark deed and not knowing about it are equally futile? The knowledge that doomed or at least damaged Pauline isn’t helping Hillary, either. By the time it can be known, it’s too late to prevent.
Also, the obstacles in the way of reconciliation aren’t put there solely by the guilty to conceal their guilt. Hillary has self-interested reasons not to divulge everything about her dad ranging from career, family, and deeper psychological ones.
It may seem thoughtless to begin a review about a book about a woman newly taking agency over her life and life story by comparing it to a different novel about a man describing his life, except male intrusion is very much a theme of What We Both Know. Barney’s memoir has three sections, each named for one of his ex-wives. The ghostly, haunting figure of “boogie” looms over Barney as a kind of father-figure. While Barney made a fortune distributing schlock on Canadian TV, boogie read Tolstoy in the original Russian and shocked and shrugged at the bourgeoisie rather than lowered himself by catering to their tastes.
Whatever conflict Hillary has with her father, and there’s conflict alright!, he’s still inextricably linked to her ideas about life and art. There’s no world for Hillary where a man isn’t centrally located in her life. That’s what she’s trying to build.
Ultimately, working on herself (her career, her friends, her sex life, her romantic life) and working on her writing project involves overcoming the same type of male influence. The public and private struggle is tied together.
I don’t want to generalize too much: the real Mordecai Richler by all accounts was a lovely man who raised five kids and loved Florence faithfully (the Charles Foran bio is excellent). The character Baby feels like a representative of one common and crusty species of The Male Writer, celebrated for prioritizing art above family, whose home smells like leather-bound books and the expensive scotch they drink, and whose inevitable sexual hijinks/misconduct adds to their public and professional persona and their mythological aura.
Richler wasn’t Panofsky, and it’d be wrong to reduce Parker’s novel to merely a social novel, or an essay in novel form. I hope I didn’t minimize it by discussing it largely in terms of its overarching themes. It’s a psychological novel which confronts a lot of underlying forces deftly and with considerable nuance.
If anything, the novel does a good job of showing how an apparently simmering Me Too scandal is connected on lower frequencies to various aspects of everyday life involving innocent people. Just like the genders are inverted, WWBK ends where Barney’s Version begins, with a writer’s promise to tell their own story.
Barney’s Version is Barney Panofsky recounting his own life his own way. Women are the landmarks along his journey. He was a shit, even if he only blames himself. He lived his life, and now he’s trying to find meaning in that life.
It’s no accident Hillary needs to get the first story about Baby out of the way before she can begin to tell “her own” story. She needs to work through this crap before beginning to live, even if she’s approaching middle-age.
Put another way, the focus on Me Too stories is often about their most salacious aspects–how the clearly guilty at their worst abuse the clearly innocent at their most innocent. But the daily grind of having someone like Baby rule over you for years is enough to cause lasting damage, even if the thing they’re in the public crosshairs for happened to someone. Untangling it is messy, privately and publicly.
There are also some great philosophical discussions about how time moves, if it’s real, how relative time and perception are. Things like that. It’s a serious look at various dimensions of a social phenomena that, while it’s gone mainstream, is still not fully explored or understood. Even if you wanted to look at it fully, doing so is hard. It involves threading together several people’s stories, and zooming in and out to harmonize the macro and micro perspectives.
Such public reckonings are probably thought to be a binary choice of privately telling or hiding the truth, but aspects of Me Too stories can be so deeply personal, psychological, complicated, and multi-layered that a person may genuinely struggle to track down and understand their own story and get it out, even if they were determined to. That’s what this is about.
I’m reluctant to imagine the life fictional characters lead after their story ends. Like Nabokov says, fictional characters are just their writer’s galley slaves and have no independent existence. But Barney’s mind is gone before he learns of the exonerating evidence of what happened to Boogie’s body. He was decades older than Parker’s character Hillary Greene but never got to enjoy the public accepting his total innocence. I wish Greene finds mental peace to move forward with her life and story in healthy ways, that she can transcend the Baby-man bullshit dragging her down while she still has lots of years to enjoy it.
The novel is less about her doing this and more about the levels of struggle involved in the attempt.