An Untimely Frost is prefaced by two quotes on loneliness, one from Washington Irving, the other Mary Shelley. These quotes serve both to set up one of the major themes of the novel and to nod toward its inspiration: the rumored hint of romance between the aforementioned authors.
Written by Illinois author Ted Morrissey, An Untimely Frost concerns Jefferson Wheelwright, an American author hailing from a family of industrial wealth, traveling Europe to promote the impending publication of his latest work, and on Margret Healey, a mysterious, reclusive British author whose only published novel to date, Dunkelraum, regards a German scientist who built a man from the body parts of dead people and reanimated him. The two authors’ lives of solitude intertwine when Wheelwright visits Healey’s house in an attempt to meet her, having been a fan of her work since he was a boy. Events conspire to leave Wheelwright a resident of Healey’s house, serving as her companion. The authors’ quick-to-develop, complicated, but somewhat platonic kinship for one another provides the bulk of the novel’s plot. But it is with their artistic struggles, self-doubts, and suffering that Morrissey most concerns himself.
This is primarily a novel about novelists, for novelists. Long passages of the book are devoted to reading, writing, editing, and the struggles and revelations therein, and the depiction of the relationship between the authors and their art provide some of the novel’s most exhilarating passages. But Morrissey reaches beyond the analysis of artistic creation to examine the effect upon the authors of their varying levels of success and, moreover, the effect a truly great work of literature can have upon society at large, with his depiction of the fictitious novel’s absorption into Britain’s cultural consciousness.
The true stroke of genius in An Untimely Frost comes with its head-spinning ending, which acts as a compelling meta-analysis of the writing process, breaking the fourth wall and adding a whole, third dimension to the novel, casing everything that had come before it into doubt, and adding a clear concept to the novel in its dying moments.
Although its analysis of writing is at times enthralling, it seems Morrissey himself got too caught up in the act of it. An Untimely Frost is frightfully overwritten; each scene is described with exhausting detail, every movement carried out by every character, the smallest details of every setting, Wheelwright’s every thought, are ruminated upon at length. The scenes themselves seem to go on endlessly, with some passages contributing but the smallest details to the narrative. Scenes such as the one in which Wheelwright and his doctor, Carter, visit a carnival and then a hospital could be cut down to half their length and the novel as a whole would lose nothing. The same can be said of Wheelwright’s and Healey’s day out in London together.
Moreover, Morrissey constantly gets caught up in dream sequences, describing—or, worse—relaying word-for-word plays and novels Wheelwright is watching or reading. It doesn’t take long for these digressions to become unbearably tiresome, particularly when they concern plays such as Romeo and Juliet, the description of which could have been dispatched with one paragraph or less.
At times, the over-written nature of the novel can make it feel more like a cartoon pastiche of the ramblings of a lonely grandfather than a work of literature. Any momentum the story builds, any excitement or intrigue at the moments of surrealism injected into this otherwise realist work is drained by Wheelwright’s incessant narration. Wheelwright is a character with depth, and Morrissey’s development of him is excellent, but the novel itself would not suffer from concision on the character’s part.
There are moments of true brilliance in An Untimely Frost. It reads like it was written by a post-modernist emulating Henry James, which proves to be an intriguing combination. The story’s ending is as strong as many, and the author’s writing is in turns funny and harrowing. But one can’t help but feel that these attributes can’t help save the novel from the monotony of its first and much of its second acts. Perhaps with more ruthless editing, the novel could have been a triumph. As it stands, it is a wonderful idea that wasn’t quite pulled off.
January 2014, Twelve Winters Press
$17.95, paperback, 362 pages
—Reviewed by William Wright