William Brewer’s ‘The Red Arrow’ is a complex portrait of a struggling writer

May 29, 2022, 9:58 p.m.

Content warning: this article contains reference to suicide.

It’s rare for me to come across a character in a novel that I find as infuriating as I do worthy of sympathy. Yet in his debut novel, “The Red Arrow,” William Brewer manages to create such a complex and layered character.

The novel follows an unnamed writer struggling with depression and writer’s block who, in a bid to get out of debt from his publisher, agrees to ghostwrite a memoir for an unnamed famous physicist (referred to in-novel as simply “The Physicist”). When The Physicist suddenly disappears, the narrator travels to Italy to search for him. This novel is told through a nonlinear narrative — the bulk of which takes place on a train ride through Italy — as the narrator ruminates on all of the decisions that have led to his current predicament.

The narrator of “The Red Arrow” is, in a word, obnoxious. He is, at all times, painfully aware of the reader’s scrutiny and frequently engages in self-censorship; at multiple points in the novel, he displays anxiety over the reader’s judgment of him. The narration is often marked by long stretches of dialogue ruminating on literature, design or physics. Much of the narrator’s internal monologue is preoccupied with quotations and passages from other books that he consumes. 

To these books, the narrator has two types of reactions (which often occur simultaneously): he despairs at his own lack of writerly talent and drive, and becomes obsessed with these books and their writers. This narrator is the type of person who cares deeply about art and is unafraid to cast sharp judgments about it. In one of the opening scenes of the novel, he and his wife scoff at a stranger wearing a Boy Scout uniform paired with jean shorts, declaring it “an aesthetic crime.”

Through the books he reads, the narrator tries and fails to make sense of those around him. He examines his estranged relationship with his father with a scrutiny that borders on cruelty. After sustaining a major injury that prevented him from working, the narrator’s father became socially isolated, bitter and ill-tempered. However, the narrator instead chooses to view this behavior as a deficit in character; he characterizes his father as someone who is overly dependent upon interaction. Taking inspiration from The Physicist’s work, he claims that his father is like an electron, “concrete only in relation to the other physical objects it is interacting with.”

At the same time, I have the impression that the narrator is truly incapable of seeing the people around him in any other way. The narrator is the type of person who lives through literature, yet fails to understand the life that he has really lived. In his own writing, the narrator retraces his own childhood and adolescence. The narrator’s debut collection of short stories, “The Troops,” is based on his experience as a child in the Boy Scouts. His failed first novel was inspired by his memories of a major oil spill in West Virginia. It is then inevitable that when he undertakes a ghostwriting project for The Physicist, he can’t help but go through an identity crisis: he struggles to differentiate between The Physicist’s memories and his own. 

Through the narrator’s preoccupation with literature, Brewer successfully creates a character whose internal struggles are complex and nuanced. This obsession with books is, ultimately, a front for the narrator’s depression. In an otherwise lighthearted passage detailing his early romance with his wife and his early successes, the narrator recalls receiving an important phone call from a writing fellowship “just as [he] was leaving to go kill [himself].” Despite the narrator’s predilection for examining his past for stories, nowhere in the book is there a backstory or clear explanation for his depression. It simply exists.

Ultimately, the narrator’s troubles — internal and external — are resolved in an ending that seems almost magical in its abruptness. In Italy, he succeeds in meeting The Physicist in person. He also succeeds in driving away his depression after undergoing a psychedelic treatment that allows him to see his past in greater clarity. In another book, an ending like this may come off as undeserved. However, I found the narrative arc of “The Red Arrow” strangely cohesive. It’s as if the narrator’s act of recounting his past is equivalent to the psychedelic treatment that he underwent — that is, the very nature of storytelling catapults him into the process of healing.

“The Red Arrow” is a book that is preoccupied with books; it centers around a narrator who, through literature, simultaneously loses his sense of self and rediscovers himself anew. Brewer excels at crafting this portrait of an obsessive, pretentious and struggling writer.

Editor’s Note: This article is a review and includes subjective thoughts, opinions and critiques.

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