Barbara Henning’s new novel Just Like That charts with profound depth and sophistication the course of an interracial love affair, that of a white Bohemian poet and college instructor, Sara, who is the narrator of the tale, and a black Afro-centric acupuncturist, Jabari, who complicates the mix by having a young son, product of a brief relationship with a woman from whom he is now estranged. But that’s hardly the only complication. They both have older children, who tend to interfere; have weathered marriages or long-term partnerships, which shape their present apprehensions; had difficult childhoods and are undergoing health problems.
Right off, it should be said this is not a book in which the reader questions whether the pair will stick it out. Quite early, in the first few pages, Sara reveals, after their five year romance has floundered but still, it might seem, could reignite:
… it’s Jabari’s birthday, December 1st, 2015. I haven’t seen him since May. I check his Facebook page, thinking I’ll wish him a happy birthday. When I scroll down his posts, I discover he is in Bali and was married yesterday. Married? Just five months after we broke up.
Since it’s revealed early on that the affair ended badly, the reader approaches the story with this query: Where did things go wrong? And this is explored in the book in a searching, aching manner.
Recall that for Deleuze (in Difference and Repetition) what distinguishes the modern novel from its earlier incarnations is just this:
The fact that the novel, particularly since Joyce, has found a new language in the mode of an “Enquiry” or “Questionnaire” and presents essentially problematic events and characters [which] obviously does not mean that nothing is certain … but, on the contrary, the discovery of the question and the problematic as a transcendental horizon.
If Henning takes up this question of what went wrong, she interconnects three layers of answers. This is why I just called the book profound, in that it does not establish one level as primary. Some of the points, seen in isolation, such as Sara’s relationship to her mother’s death or Jabari’s having been married for 20 years, might seem decisive for the course of their romance, but what is really presented, “operationalizied,” if you will, In Just Like That, is the discrete, pluralized and constantly redistributing movement of these interweaving levels so that, by the end, the reader has no solution but rather a complex, very real “mesh.”
The first two elements are the sociological and psychological. In sociological terms, though the protagonists are of two different races and backgrounds, they have many similarities. Both are vegetarians, practice alternative medical/spiritual disciplines – he can give her acupuncture and she can teach him yoga moves – share progressive politics and are sensitive about child-rearing.
(Quite parenthetically, in relation to the characters’ shared affinities, in one place I thought of my own different relationship to my wife in our mixed marriage. Sara and Jabari like to go to Hollywood films. My wife, though in the U.S. for 40 years, was raised in Asia and shows no interest in cinema outside of Chinese film.)
However, where this broadly similar culture breaks down is in relation to sex roles. Although Jabari is generally equalitarian, nonetheless, when he is under stress, his default position seems to be an adherence to the traditional two spheres concept. This is to say, the man is exclusively concerned with the work world; the woman with domestic affairs. (See Mary Wilkes Freeman’s “The Revolt of Mother” for a powerful critique of this patriarchal concept.) Certainly, such a perspective appears hardly applicable to the Sara/Jabari relationship insofar as Sara is an independent, working woman who has already had a substantial career. Even so, at crucial points, it seems this traditional schema is reverted to by Jabari. For instance, at some points, suddenly and seemingly inexplicably, he withdraws from the relationship. It turns out later, as she learns when they reconnect, he pulled back because he was having work or financial difficulties and didn’t want to burden Sara with them. Or, more dramatically, after they have been living together, Sara has a medical emergency and Jabari allows Sara’s children to take her to the hospital while he ignores her pain. I see all these actions on his part as a residual reassertion of the separate spheres’ doctrine: work and money are men’s business, healthcare is women’s work.
Put so barely, it seems a rather reductive reading and would be, except that this level is layered into a diagnosis of their problems from a psychological angle. Sara was hit hard in her teenage years by her mother’s death. She was, then, thrown into the job of raising her younger siblings in that her father seemed unable to cope with his loss and became distant and unhelpful. Even when he remarried, and much of the responsibility came off Sara’s shoulders, the father stayed unresponsive.
The author is hardly saying, by the way, that Sara has met two men with similar problems. The point is a more, covering one. The patriarchal doctrine of two spheres, used to rationalize women’s exclusion, is a fundamental framework that, if it is fought against, will only disappear gradually in that it has so much (male) social support. Sara’s father takes it up in its most restrictive form. Even if Sara is a teenager when her mother dies, she is a woman, so childrearing is her zone, at least until another female appears to take over. Jabari resists this position until, under stress.
Again, a reductionist reading would see these as patterns: Sara with her father, Sara with Jabari – there is not time to detail Jabari’s relation to his mother as it connects to his relation to Sara – but, also again, Henning ties this into another dimension. It is suggested by this interaction. “One night Jabari told me about his experience in Vietnam. … ‘There were only five other African Americans in this position. Growing an afro was a statement at the time. The colonel would send us to the barber to cut our hair. Instead, we’d shave our heads.’”
Perhaps it no longer goes without saying but the Vietnam war and conflicts around it was the watershed moment for recent American history. In the joint statement Anti-Systemic Movements, Wallerstein, Arrighi and Hopkins point out:
The student, Black and antiwar movements in the United States [in the 1960s], the student movements in Japan and Mexico … and as of the 1970s, the women’s movements did not have identical roots or even common effects. .. Their almost simultaneous occurrence can largely be traced to the fact that the movements of the late 1960s were precipitated by a common catalyst: the escalation of the anti-imperialist war in Vietnam.
It is this war that sparks both the Afro-centric movement among Blacks such as Jabari and the feminist movement among women such as Sara. And it is this that separates Sara’s father, who sees nothing beyond the separate spheres doctrine, and Jabari who acknowledges that moving out of this doctrine is essential to human liberation. Both Sara and Jabari’s embrace of holistic health also places them as people who are working to reshape culture in a progressive direction. I would suggest that it is only among such people, who construct lives outside of the bleakly conformist mainstream culture, where a love affair can still be an adventure.
Now we are getting to the root. For Henning, the construction of a love relationship exists as part of an historical project of remodeling our society’s non-equalitarian ways of relating. Her book describes how the enlacement of psychological and sociological levels form the heart of a negotiation of historical limits whose success or failure are tied to such factors as the ability of different progressive social movements to ally. A love affair, then, has significant historical stakes.
Contrary to what my discussion may suggest, the novel is not a treatise but a passionately detailed chronicle; excruciatingly painful at times of conflict between the pair; vividly life-affirming at others when the couple achieve a temporary, joyful balance. The question posed at the beginning is never resolved; that’s not the point. What is at issue is that, as the reader sees the partnership unravel in all its complexity, is that a personal, sociological and historical tangle is illuminated in real time. As readers of other work of this author will know, Henning plays a game with no simplicity, no false simplicity, only a lucid depiction of life in all its fecundity with a sure gauge of the politics of the personal.
Barbara Henning, Just Like That (New York: Spuyten Duyvil, 2018)