The eminent American literary critic Edmund Wilson made a telling, if rather axiomatic observation that “No two people read the same book”. Pamela Heller-Stern’s novel “Who’s Knocking on my Door” is likely to provoke powerfully ambivalent responses from readers, on account of its contentious and discomfiting primary theme, Death, and also its wayward, unfamiliar and fragmented style which eschews conventional syntax, grammar and punctuation.
Likewise, the tenor and tone of the novel and the cool, dispassionate narration (mostly in the third person by an unnamed, genderless and omniscient narrator) appears transgressively outmoded and distancing. The device of an uninvolved narrator is a risky one, since a number of very private details need to be presented as if they were within the range of the narrator’s experience. It is a measure of Heller-Stern’s skill as a novelist that one never questions the authenticity of the storytelling.
She masters an effortless prose and writes with immense assurance, switching between first and third person narration, alternating passages of dense metaphorical and literary prose with demotic vernacular, everyday observations and dialogue. Her especial forte, like Christopher Isherwood or Saul Bellow, is social observation, closely written descriptions of characters, the actualities of lived lives, and vivid, memorable characterisation, including interior characterizations.
A particular blend of detachment and specificity marks this type of fiction writer – Chekhov might not be far off the comparative mark. In this respect the novel is very much a psychological novel dealing with personality development and presents a sequence of coming- of- age stories. The characters are engaging, eminently real in their desires, contradictions, vulnerability and blind spots (Arthur Miller asserted that the writer’s job is to ‘tear away the veils of denial’). It is unlikely Heller-Stern’s readers will ask themselves: “do I believe this?” This is surely the mark of a gifted storyteller and entertainer.
Who’s Knocking on my Door?