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Arts + CultureLitIn 'The Return,' James Terry pens a lush, tragic...

In ‘The Return,’ James Terry pens a lush, tragic ‘coming-of-old-age’ story

Novella's UC professor protagonist must brave modern cacophony, despite silent film obsession.

It was in 2011 while living in India that writer James Terry read and became entranced by the 1989 novel The Melancholy of Resistance by Hungarian writer László Krasznahorkai. He was spellbound by its lush sentence structure and surreal, sinister narrative—involving a circus arriving in a small Hungarian town in the dead of winter—which uncoils with little punctuation in just 320 pages. Led away from Raymond Carver-like minimalism, Terry says he started creating densely detailed scenes for the novella he was writing, and “stuck with that mode.” In September, the San Francisco-based publisher of brief novels The Shortish Project released that 146-page novella The Return, under its Outpost19 imprint.

The Return centers on Bernard Aoust, a 60-something UC Berkeley film professor obsessed with a supposedly long-lost silent French film from 1923. He has devoted his academic life to the film and its mercurial director, and is counting on the publication of his new monograph on the work to salvage his floundering (to phrase it mildly) career. When the film suddenly appears on YouTube and its veil of mystery is torn away, Aoust suffers an existential crisis. The Return explores loss, love, bitterness, and what society forfeits when long-established art forms and means of communication die and are replaced by shiny and hi-tech—but low-value and soul-destroying—new ones.

Terry currently lives in Liverpool, England, but is well traveled, having lived at various times in his life in Deming, New Mexico, Berkeley, Dublin, India, Canada, and the UK. His fiction has appeared in The Iowa Review, Georgia Review, Dublin Review, South Dakota Review, Connecticut Review, Notre Dame Review, Fiction, Pleiades, North American Review, Asymptote, and more. Terry is the author of the short story collection Kingdom of the Sun (University of New Mexico Press, 2016), and two novels: The Solitary Woman of Shakespeare (Sandstone, 2016) and Heir Apparent (Skyhorse, 2019). He attended UC Berkeley in the 1980s and ’90s, and holds an MFA from San Francisco State University.

Answering interview questions from his home, the 53-year-old writer agrees his Franco-American protagonist is a hyphenated man, not only in his dual nationality, but in existing as if separated from modern time. Aoust seems completely at a distance from his ex-wife, and even the professor’s son, whose bombastic band performs music at volumes Aoust worries will permanently destroy the young man’s hearing.

“The book is a sort of a coming-of-old-age story,” says Terry. “Some things are autobiographic stuff, but with Aoust, it all comes to a head and the meaning of his life is ripped out from underneath him. His world is being changed, although his love of cinema is constant.”

Terry says Aoust’s physical attributes, especially his thick, long beard, were likely born out of his own nostalgia for student days, and bear particular resemblance to his old film studies instructor, professor emeritus Bertrand Augst.

“He taught the history of film,” Terry recalls. “[Aoust is also inspired by] an old guy I was hanging out with in India where my wife, Deana Heath, who’s a historian, was working. He had a long beard too—and a great character, with a kind of bitterness about the past because of a longterm lawsuit he was wrapped up in. He had Aoust’s same, great love of cinema.”

Terry says his work has also been influenced by such scribes as Henry Miller, Herman Melville, Cormac McCarthy, Paul Auster, and various others.

“I love Twain and Joyce for their humor, for irony with richness mixed in,” he tells. “The combination of darkness and ironic or comedic elements is something I try to achieve. I also love Becket’s black, dark humor. I’m always aware of pain in life and like it not to be entirely ignored. In Return, there’s buried, low-level anxiety, but then there’s also rolling with it on the surface. Another writer I love is Vladimir Nabokov. The language is amazing and the poetry has irony that captures darkness but is funny.”

James Terry

Aoust’s love of silent film sets the scene for many jarring contrasts with sound in the novella. A café is so full of clamor that Aoust cannot think. A rock concert stuns him. There is a cacophony of computers and YouTube videos—and even mental noise, caused by mountains of student emails and voice messages from other professors and department heads. Silent cinema stands in clear contrast to modern noise. But despite life’s sonic dissonance and volume, Aoust harbors no antipathy toward language. He protests only its extreme or careless use.

The Return reaches its climax when Aoust, having experienced the destruction of his dream and crushed after a his decades-long yearning for academic recognition is obliterated, rises in a quasi-heroic, tragically violent physical act cheered by an onlooking crowd. After 134 pages of build up it’s cathartic, with some of Terry’s most powerful writing causing a reader to want to shout, “Yes!”

That release is intentional. For Terry, language and writing are meditative, calming.

“Writing is a need,” he says. “When you start and that world opens up, there’s joy in the words being right, a character coming to life. I’ve invested in this practice and profession and I start to feel my life is meaningless if I don’t keep doing it. There are internal factors that keep me writing. I like technology and the magical things we’ve created, like AI, but I don’t need it to do what I do.”

Here’s proof: Terry is working on a new novel titled Long Bomb. “It’s about a teenager in a mythical town who finds an underground bunker. He and another kid become sleuths, trying to find out more about the secrets of the town’s older generation. Repression opens up to devastate the town.”

Buy The Return here.

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