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Swimming with Jonah

by Audrey Schulman

Audrey Schulman’s fictional debut, The Cage, traced the psychic breakthrough of a troubled magazine photographer assigned to shoot polar bears in the wild, from inside a metal cage. In bizarrely uneven prose, it nonetheless told an evocative and unconventional story, and indicated its author as a writer of considerable promise. Which raises the question: what’s with Audrey Schulman? Her second novel, Swimming with Jonah, proves frustrating and admirable in precisely the same ways as her first.

Schulman again creates a memorable character, this time in Jane Guy, the mild and scholastically incompetent daughter of a successful Connecticut doctor. After Jane is refused admission by every medical school in the U.S., her parents use their wealth to buy her a spot at a minor, but legitimate, medical school located on a small Indonesian island. The school turns out to be a kind of remedial boot camp, using isolation and intimidation to keep its American students – mostly disgraced rich kids like Jane – in line.

However, for a story that reveals itself gradually, the opening is slackly written. Jane’s parents are sketched in crayon: brittle, chilly über-WASPs interested only in status and keeping their feeble marriage and awkward daughter from becoming public spectacles. Schulman may be aiming for satire here, but Aaron Spelling could give a more nuanced view of the ruling classes.

Given this misstep, it’s all the more startling when Swimming with Jonah resolves into a hypnotic and suspenseful tale. After Jane arrives on the island to begin school, Schulman seems to discover a sense of writerly purpose. Through Jane’s dissociated, near-cinematic state of mind, we sense the wet heat of the island, with its oppressively regimented days and its wild, unpredictable nights. Jane begins to explore her submerged self in an almost clinical manner, revealing layers as shocking and raw as those of the anonymous corpse that she must learn to dissect in her anatomy class.

Like the photographer in The Cage, Jane is a woman whose passivity leads her into extreme situations, where she is finally moved to discover her own desires and boundaries. This is dark, unsentimental, and ambitious work: if Schulman’s prose would only rise to the level of her images, her novels could be recommended without reservation.