What the literary world really wants from novelist Marianne Wiggins is a memoir about her marriage to Salman Rushdie. It was Wiggins, after all, who lived in hiding with Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini issued him a fatwah upon the publication of The Satanic Verses. “I have an enormous amount of pressure on me to write about this for no other reason than for historical reasons,” says Wiggins. “Because I know stuff about this that nobody else knows.” Instead she’s written a novel about amnesia.
Almost Heaven (Crown, 213 pp., $22) is a road trip romance where the survival of the characters’ love for each other is completely dependent on the suppression of a devastating memory. Although Wiggins embodies the manic speech patterns of the book’s narrator, a 29-year-old foreign correspondent named Holden Garfield, he is, like all of Wiggins’s characters, purely fictional.
In New York for a few days before beginning her book tour, Wiggins is staying with her friend Claire Bloom. Bloom’s relationship with Philip Roth, which ended in divorce and about which she wrote in her 1996 memoir Welcome to the Dollhouse, draws obvious parallels to the public tumult of Wiggins’s marriage to Rushdie. “Claire obviously has a history with a man who made autobiography his life’s work and we often talk about this,” says Wiggins. “I don’t think I could ever do what Philip does, because first of all I’m not temperamentally cut out for it. I mean, he’s a genius at it. But I know the price he paid for it in his personal life.”
The characters in Almost Heaven are people seemingly devoid of personal lives. Holden has spent years covering the Balkan war for Newsweek and returns to America shell-shocked by violence and haunted by an image of a baby nailed to a tree. Still, he becomes the unwitting savior of Melanie Page, the sister of his mentor, Noah John. (Noah, another foreign correspondent, was the narrator of an earlier Wiggins novel, Eveless Eden, which the author once described as a revenge novel about journalists; in Almost Heaven, Noah is in a rather obliquely described hiding situation in South Dakota.) Melanie, 16 years Holden’s senior, has recently seen her husband and four sons killed by a tornado and is holed up in a Richmond, Virginia, hospital with no recollection of the last 20 years of her life. In an effort to jog her memory, Holden attempts to bring her to her brother, and falls in love with her along the way, largely by romanticizing her inability to remember the same kind of pain he can’t forget. “If she could help him to forget, he could help her to remember,” Holden muses. “If they could learn to face their grief together, then they would have entered a place, a state, a levitation, a relief, a grace, a condition, a remembrance—almost heaven—where time does not exist, where nothing’s ever lost and the experience of loving never makes us mourn.”
Yes, there is a character here (albeit a peripheral one) who is in hiding. But Wiggins insists that any similarities to her own life are purely coincidental and that it was the notion of stolen memories that inspired the novel’s central thread, which explores the various ways the subconscious protects us from agonizing truths. “I have not gone public about those years [with Rushdie],” says Wiggins. “I think I was imposing a sort of amnesia because the only person I could talk to about the great lot of what I went through over those years wasn’t talking to me. I literally have no screen onto which to project those memories. When you lose your intimate relationship you lose a projection of your history, you’ve lost archival material, and as a theme I had to face this one way or the other.”
Almost Heaven, although not exactly minimal in prose style, has a spare, tight-lipped tone that gives its characters an ethereal, even fragile quality. Holden thinks and speaks in a flippant, sometimes grating staccato and Wiggins herself admits that her narrator is “a jerk.” Much of the novel’s emotional content is imparted through weather, dramatic storms and recurring tornadoes that punctuate the action like a musical score. “Americans are obsessed with weather,” says Wiggins, who recently completed a story for Condé Nast Traveler wherein she spent 10 days chasing tornadoes through the Midwest. “Weather is another way of not talking about history and another way of not talking about God,” she says. “We haven’t stopped to consider our own history, and maybe this is the dynamic of the 20th century.”
Wiggins conjectures that the current memoir craze in America might reflect a need for instantaneous history. “There are so many aspects of American life that are so foreign,” says Wiggins. “The idea that you have the right to divest yourself of the most intimate aspects of your life. The English aren’t like that. One terrific aspect of the Rushdie affair is that it couldn’t have happened in any other country because the English don’t say anything about anything. Nobody would talk about having seen us, even if they were asked.”
These days, Wiggins is anything but quarantined. Now 51, she has a new relationship with a man she describes as a professional explorer. “He built a leather boat and sailed across the Atlantic,” she says. “Then he built a bamboo raft and sailed across the Pacific.” The couple started the year by sailing down the Amazon and recently returned from Tonga. Wiggins, who wears a whale pendant around her neck, says her next book involves writing a new version of Moby Dick, a character who almost certainly is not based on anyone she knows. “I’m a writer of fiction,” she says, as if she has to remind people a dozen times a day. “I glory in my anonymity. I was actually temperamentally very well suited to being in hiding because it’s pretty much the way that I live.” Could such a declaration send Salinger knocking at her door? “I think he’s probably pretty busy,” Wiggins laughs. “And quite frankly, I’ve had it with psychotics.”