Daniel Wallace is a bit more recognizable name these days as a movie version of his popular book Big Fish is on the big screen. But back before I really knew about Big Fish I picked up Ray in Reverse at a discount bookstore in one of those outlet malls of all places.
Ray in Reverse is the story of Ray Williams and, as you might have guessed from the title, it is told backwards. But it is not simply told in reverse order. The story is made up of short vignettes or episodes in Ray’s life. These stories start with Ray in heaven and move backwards in time until he is a small child. The story ends with Ray again in heaven. In heaven Ray is a group called Last Words, where people . . . well you get the picture. So the stories lead us backward into Ray’s life as they reveal and give meaning to his last words.
I am not sure I really understand exactly what Wallace was getting at with Ray. He seems to me a very odd character. He is unfaithful to his wife, to whom he seems to have proposed in a fit of sexual insecurity, and not particularly appealing. He had an awkward relationship with his parents, his mom in particular, and never really seemed sure of himself; perhaps his faults stem from this insecurity. I guess he represents the average person with faults and virtues mixed together in ways that make them a hard to unravel. The device of telling the stories in reverse chronological order, and yet skipping seemingly randomly through the years a few years at a time, brings a certain poignancy to the episodes. It is like reading someone’s diary by flipping the pages and stopping occasionally. The writing has a soft touch. Wallace successfully infuses the story with the awkwardness and uncertainty of Ray, who never quite seems settled. The disjointed nature of the work reinforces this feeling; it has a sort of otherworldly feel to it.
I find this sorts of books very interesting; books without a traditional or compelling plot line. I enjoy reading them but yet they often leave me perplexed when I am finished. What was the author trying to say exactly? Did I miss some deeper meaning? In the end I usually conclude no. Instead, I see them as almost word paintings. They use language to create beauty and mystery but they leave much of the interpretation to the reader/viewer. Ray in Reverse is enjoyable in this way. The language is subtle and skilful and the structure makes you think about life and how it plays itself out. Not everything requires deep philosophical meaning, sometimes the artful use of words is enough.