'Running' Creates Immersive World but Unsympathetic Characters

3.5 Stars

Running cover
“The forest loomed, crested blue and deep in the distance, a fading moon was still in the sky and the pale light of morning rose silvery pink against the trees. The birds were beginning to wake and sing. The air was sweet and clear with the smell of pine and grass from our meadow…I ran fast because when you got going there was no more pain, even when your feet were bleeding.” It is in individual moments like this that Cara Hoffman’s third novel “Running” shines, as the best aspect of the novel is its elegant and virtuosic descriptions of the world through which her characters wander.

The novel, set initially in 1988 in Athens, follows Bridey Sullivan, a seventeen-year-old American girl who lives with Milo Rollock and Jasper Lethe, a queer British couple. The three work as “runners,” hustlers who bring tourists in from trains to cheap hotels and later steal their passports to sell. They spend most of their days reading, drinking, and having sex with each other, and much of the novel appropriately reads like an unrealistic daydrem. The novel is split into three time periods—the first takes place in 1988 in Athens and is told from Bridey’s perspective; the second occurs in present day New York City, where Milo is a poetry professor at the New School; in the third, Hoffman explores scenes from Bridey’s childhood in Washington State, where she was raised by a kind but emotionally distant forest firefighter uncle named Dare who prepares her to survive in the event of nuclear attack.

The three different temporal settings work well together to create a fascinating landscape of memories, but the disjointed way in which the novel is executed feels jarring. The setting switches at the beginning of almost every short chapter, which makes it difficult to keep track of crucial details that establish shifts in alliances between the characters, and the constant alternations break the building tension and make the climaxes feel oddly placid and alien. In theory this approach should work, putting present-day actions in the context of memories that might provide deeper psychological explanations. But each chapter feels too brief to let the reader find a foothold in the relationships between characters or to form a real bond with Bridey herself.

Because the relationships between characters feel underdeveloped, the most affecting parts of the novel are the moments in which the characters are completely alone. Hoffman sticks to plain speech—she simply states what the wandering character sees and smells and feels and does, but the effect is powerful. “Back where the trail met the sand there was a secluded depression beside some tall cedars. I dug a little camp, collected some brush and flotsam and set it on fire, sat naked on my shirt, smoking. My skin warmed, dried from the fire, and I dressed in the only other clothes I owned. Then lay near the flames, in the clear silence and slept.” Hoffman has a keen eye for unusual but recognizable details, and her assured and practical control of simple words makes it easy to slip into the character’s shoes and see, smell, and feel the same things.

Hoffman so successfully simulates a completely immersive experience that it raises the question of whether this work might be better suited as a virtual reality video game than as a novel. Although Hoffman conjures up a vast and gorgeous world, the characters fail to earn much sympathy by the end, on the one hand because of the distractingly disjointed structure, and on the other hand because Hoffman is stingy with backstories that would explain much of the characters’ behavior at pivotal moments. Hoffman’s artistic choice to obscure their backstories has some aesthetic value in creating a mystical atmosphere. But the characterization ultimately feels unsatisfying, and Bridey, Milo, and Jasper feel locked away, perhaps behind an unwillingness to seem too melodramatic, too easy—too real. They could almost be avatars in a game, with vague, sweeping backstories of great hardship and sorrow. Although “Running” has its flaws in regards to its narrative structure and characterization, it works as an escapist plunge into a flighty world of sensations, surprise, and a good dose of nostalgia.