The Shape of Things to Come

Terrace Story By Hilary Leichter. New York: Ecco. 208 pages. $28.

The cover of Terrace Story

REMEMBER WHEN THE worst thing was death? AIDS, cancer, COVID—a horror for the people who died (are still dying) and a massive source of anxiety for the rest of us. And yet as my daughter and I waited out lockdown—fwiw, my daughter in this context represents the zeitgeist—she never once worried about us dying from COVID. Nope, she’d already assimilated death anxiety into her shelf of bedtime reading, the old standards. Instead, her fear had stepped up and out on a ledge overlooking apocalypse. Climate change. The end of everything. Extinction

Hilary Leichter’s second novel, Terrace Story, understands the climate we’re living in and how useful it is for generating the kind of pressure that can mold a novel into shape. Yes, Terrace Story is about family, love, loss—it’s pretty gutting throughout—but what gives it presence is the forgone conclusion that it’s all gonna be over soon. 

I want you to take note of the word shape. It’s an important one for this novel, especially in the context of the end of everything—is there a better metaphor for extinction than shapelessness? Terrace Story is obsessed with shape. With the geometry and space of our inner lives and their analogues in the outer banks—a terrace here, a ruin there. In a world where extinction is the air we breathe, the shape of things takes on significance.

But what is this novel about, you ask. I’ll try to tell you. It’s an intergenerational story set in some distant future and split into four sections: “Terrace”; “Folly”; “Fortress”; “Cantilever.” Did you know that folly is also the name of a structure that serves no purpose? I didn’t. “Terrace” first appeared as a short story (also called “Terrace Story”) that won acclaim for its lovely sensibility and sentence making. In brief, it’s about a young couple—Annie and Edward—and their baby, who live in a tiny apartment. One day Annie invites a colleague over and, poof, through a closet door materializes a terrace. There’s fodder here for a hundred New York City real estate jokes, but what’s happening in this section isn’t droll so much as gorgeous.

But the terrace arrived upon her with the relief of a long-awaited reunion. Annie felt a chill, because it was a reunion with herself. She had been accommodating some unknown injury for years, and it had silently joined the daily landscape of known feeling. Now, standing on the terrace, she woke to find her forgotten wound healed. 

For a time. But in the way of all things marching toward their end, the family’s halcyon days go dark. It’s a slow process, marked by little ticks of agony. Annie rushing to her baby instead of kissing her husband on New Year’s: “The physicality of the moment passed quickly, but it lingered from the end of one year into the beginning of the next, Annie and Edward standing only steps apart, the queasy sensation of extra distance tucked between the measurable inches.”

The novel returns to this couple—do not fear—from a different point of view later. 

Section Two: “Folly.” Some earlier time in the future (but still far off; crows are extinct, e.g.) we meet a couple living squarely in the shadow of time—the wife writes about extinction, the husband teaches history. Soon enough, the wife becomes obsessed with her husband dying: she “had not felt this pointless circle for some time, the unmistakable shape of dread, the Questions. She was in its circumference now.” Her thoughts and feelings become, themselves, like little follies that dot the landscape of her marriage. They have a child. There’s an affair. Two. And for a time, the bedrock of their relationship crumbles. The center cannot hold.

Mohammed Sami, Infection II, 2021, mixed media on linen, 82 5/8 × 71 1/8". © Mohammed Sami; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Modern Art, London
Mohammed Sami, Infection II, 2021, mixed media on linen, 82 5/8 × 71 1/8". © Mohammed Sami; Courtesy of the artist, Luhring Augustine, New York, and Modern Art, London

And so more estrangement, loneliness, and loss. Though what stands out for me about this section—this novel, really—is how well it depicts joy. Small moments—fleeting and sad in retrospect for the unhappiness they precede—but all the same: wow. It’s a lot easier to write about despair than joy. Joy often feels banal on the page. People who like each other are banal. And yet: this couple. 

George wiped her brow with the side of his sleeve, and she grinned, wiping the rest of her sweat on his chest, nuzzling into his belly and the soft meat of him that gave way for her affection. She left a round wet mark on his pressed shirt.

Despite “Terrace Story” being the jumping-off point for this novel, it’s actually Section Three, “Fortress,” that is the show-stopper. It occupies the bulk of the novel and its thematic concerns, and it is sad. It’s about a woman, Stephanie, who can make space—literally—for the things she wants. Space takes on the shape of her desires. She can make her tiny sister’s grave bigger. A bowl. A tunnel. Stephanie can create space where there was none. What she can’t do is re-create life. As such, the loss of her sister governs so many of Stephanie’s choices, it reminded me of a great line by the poet Henri Cole: “Remember / death ends a life, not a relationship.” 

Stephanie has thoughts like “solitude was the only space worth having” until she falls in love. The perimeter of her life grows to accommodate feelings for this man—“Oh, she could go everywhere in her life and still never make it to the end of Will”—but at no point is there even the slightest chance their relationship can blossom into a happy place for her. And because Leichter has organized this novel so that we know how things end for Stephanie (think reading about the Civil War from Robert E. Lee’s perspective), we get to really dwell on the how and why of her choices instead of rushing through just to see how it ends. 

Which is a smart choice on Leichter’s part since so much of this novel—most every sentence—is freighted with subtext and implication. If you rush, you will miss all the wordplay and ideation happening throughout. And probably have a hard time understanding just what is going on beyond the logistics of plot. Now, some readers will find the effort to unpack Leichter’s prose fatiguing; others will find its relentless fix on theme fatiguing. But mostly I found both the work and the novel’s perseverating on theme enjoyable—at once claustrophobic and performative as a result. For instance, the way Stephanie describes her parents, who, out of fear, abandon her to grief and loneliness: “She thought of her parents, whether she could really claim them as her own anymore. Two small remnants, like porcelain figurines abandoned on the floor of her mind.” Or Stephanie’s version of joy: “Her heart looked for a place to put everything it could not hold, palms outstretched, creating an alcove to save her happiness for later.” The floor of her mind, a place, an alcove—Leichter will miss no opportunity to stay on message.

Section Four: “Cantilever,” pitched as a metaphor for the catapult through time:

The person who invented the suburbs had already died. That’s how quickly time was moving now. If you blinked, you missed an entire story. And stories seemed to stop before they’d even started, supported only at one end by the teller, then wobbled out carefully like a beam into the unknown. 

I love this idea of stories cantilevering out into who knows what. Though really, this section is less of a cantilever than a bow that gathers the loose ends of the novel in closure before Total Closure. It’s the least successful part of Terrace Story—perhaps it takes one leap too many—though it does have its share of what now feel like signature Leichter moments of insight (see above) and pathos (see below):

“I will see you in my dreams,” he said. She did not know if he saw her, but she saw him. He was usually making eggs in the kitchen, but the kitchen was much too far away. Then he sat down in his weekend clothes and told her about his day, still on the other side of the room, retreating fast into the dark.  

A novel that can claim a few of these moments is notable. One that can boast several is memorable. Re: Stephanie and her longing to make things last, I love how she puts it: she “wished she could make moments bigger, too. But of course, that was what memory was for.” 

Fiona Maazel is the author, most recently, of the novel A Little More Human (Graywolf, 2017).