Consider All Things Cease To Appear a work of literary merit that happens to begin with a murder suspect ruminating on Emerson and an ax in the skull of the protagonist. In other words, author Elizabeth Brundage eludes the general classification of a novel into Genre Fiction or Literary Fiction.
Genre Fiction usually gets divided into romance, horror, mystery, et cetera and then subdivided into cross genres and further complicated taxa. Literary Fiction is both difficult and easy to classify because it resides in the category of books with no category. Literary Fiction is for sale in the section of your book store where the fog never lifts, its shelve hanging unfastened between the land and sky. Is All Things Cease To Appear a mystery/thriller, a romantic/horror, or a literary fictive with genre elements? Here, context serves as an inside-out metaphor for the content, the imaginary hinterland Brundage creates.
The setting is Chosen, New York, an insular working-class town. George and Catherine Clare, intellectuals from the city, have moved to a house on a foreclosed dairy farm, also the site of the previous family’s tragic self-destruction. While George attends his new position as professor of art history at a nearby college, Catherine forgoes her career in art restoration to become restorian of the spooky, decaying property. She hires the teenage Hale brothers, a sad but bighearted trio, to repaint the exteriors, although she is unaware the house was last the Hale’s home until they were orphaned by their father’s violence and mother’s murder?/suicide.
George Clare teaches study in the Hudson River School of landscape painters, specifically George Innes, whose nineteenth century works were intended to be both observably captivating and spiritually experiential. Meanwhile Catherine Clare is experiencing her own metaphysical shift. She relies on the Hale boys and other new local friendships to navigate passage through her collapsing marriage and creeping ennui. George turns out to be a character perpetrating frauds, betrayals, and violent acts with sociopathic artifice, which culminates in his becoming the prime suspect in Catherine’s gruesome murder.
In its breadth, All Things tells the concentric history of two abused mothers who meet similar tragic fate in the same house at different times. Like any good novel, the story is rich in comparative elements, but referring to Brundage’s elements as ordinary pairings and opposites seems inadequate. Counterpoint might be a closer descriptive (Catherine plays Chopin on piano!), in the sense of independent melodies composed into one harmonic texture: Catherine is the abused mistress of the house, but the ghost of her lost predecessor, Ella Hale, continues to traverse the creaky stairs; the Hale boys still consider the house their property, and yet they are dispossessed from it; the Clares and the Hales are two families at different times appearing, concentrating, and disappearing.
These contrapuntals reflect the novel’s central philosophical platform: reality is a place where morals and meaning are uncertain concepts; time is an ebbing and disappearing focal point; life is a composition of light and darkness- like an Innes landscape that balances land and sky into a vague frontier where all things blend until ceasing to appear. Brundage performs context and content in counterpoint as genre motifs are blended with literary themes and superb prose. In this scene Eddy Hale, working outside Catherine’s house, is both a de facto permanent occupant and a frequent voyeur looking in from the outside:
“Maybe she’d come out to hang the wash. He’d watch her back, her arms reaching up, her elbows as knobby as a garden snail’s. Across the fields that had been his grandfather’s and his great grandfather’s before that, the wind spoke to him. Wait, it said… Now Catherine’s daughter was sleeping in his old room. He wouldn’t tell her. He wouldn’t tell her what had gone on in that house, how his father would come after them, turning over chairs and tables, how his mother would cry up in her room or sometimes sit in one place shaking just a little, like somebody who was scared.”
I suppose genre readers could find themselves disappointed to be led into a four hundred page murder mystery that neither provides a competent detective nor concludes with certainty about who is guilty. It is a risk for Brundage to write a beautiful novel wherein beauty and love depend on the unseen, and the success of heroes and demise of villains depends entirely on implication. As Brundage writes- in fog certain things, certain colors become important. Like Innes’s intention that observers of his paintings would have their souls see what their eyes could not, Brundage shows readers that the division of genre and literary fiction, like lateral time and universal logic, is mere optical illusion.