A Canvas Richly Textured With Post-9/11 Questions

The line between painting and sculpture blurs when the layers of paint pile up, scratching the third dimension, protruding into our world. And there’s a kind of prose impasto, too: Layers of expository brushstroke, heaped with coats of consciousness and memory, cause literary characters to protrude, to extend into the world of the now. Ward Just’s Forgetfulness is a painterly novel; the plot—very much post-9/11, awash with interrogation, espionage and terror—unfolds unhurriedly. As the paint dries, the full dimensions of the characters surface.

The protagonist, Thomas Railles, is an American living in a French village in the Pyrenees. He’s a painter, of course, a portraitist: He cherishes mystery, seeking depth both in the faces he paints and in the everyday. When he reads the American paper, perhaps a few days old (“not that it mattered in the Siberian scheme of things”), Thomas looks beyond the two-dimensional print into America, “at the life behind the news. What he saw often was the world of his youth, the vast expanse of the Midwest.”

Mr. Just (himself an Illinois boy) gives his characters many opportunities to ponder the heartland. As Thomas reads of rain in Cincinnati, he contemplates “the strange mnemonics of interior cities: Chicago, Indianapolis, St. Louis.” His wife, Florette, in a similar Proustian reverie, mulls over the “strange place names” of America: “Minnesota was north, Iowa west.” Thomas’ hometown of LaBarre, a Wisconsin Lake Wobegon, was a “beautiful town to grow up in.” He and his friends remember it as “a kind of lazy American paradise where the days seemed to go on forever to the rhythm of crickets.” But it was “no town to stay in.”

Before finishing college, Thomas leaves LaBarre, pursuing a career in portraiture in New York City. A few lovers, countless portraits and many years later (and after dabbling in “odd jobs” for the C.I.A., a subplot whose substance stems from Thomas’ eventual realization that as a man of “pure brushstroke,” he was terribly miscast as a spy), Thomas settles in St. Michel du Valcabrère, where he builds a home with Florette, who was born in the village.

Though an American reader may initially cast her as a grown-up Nouvelle Vague femme, wide-eyed, stylish and alluring (a sweetheart once told her she resembled Jeanne Moreau in Jules and Jim), Florette is a wonderfully nuanced character, as thick as the paint in Thomas’ portrait of her (“the oils seemed to him to explode off the canvas”). She’s full of worldly deliberations, from her musings on Onassis (“perhaps tycoons were remorseful after their own fashion”) to her theory on the American drift (“Florette thought America had a cult of restlessness …. If you didn’t like the hand you were dealt—the wife, the job, the color of your hair or the shape of your bosom—you dealt yourself another”). In an act not of meta-textual self-reflexivity but of extraction—taking her out of the text and placing her in the real world—Mr. Just writes, “She was not a character in a novel.” But thankfully this novel has Florette; it is she who fuels the plot.

The story begins on a November evening; after dinner, Florette goes out walking and falls, twisting her ankle. As the night grows cold, four Moroccan terrorists traversing the mountain with their contraband find her on the path. The men cut her throat just as she’s about to freeze to death.

Thomas’ reaction to this “terrorist act” sets him apart from his childhood friends and the Americans whom he happens to meet in the village. The author expertly positions the latter as symbols of America: literally blind and entitled. Mr. Just seems to pity them, as if the characters themselves stubbornly insisted on their own one-dimensionality.

The blind American enters the village café bearing a “legend” on his cap, “NYPD 9/11.” He wants to start a fight with the café owner—“and for what?” the villagers ask themselves. Thomas learns that this man was not NYPD (although, as his friend reports, “in New York City we’re all cops now”) but an insurance salesman who was in the towers during the attack. Now he’s blind, angry and, according to his friend, anger is “his right.”

The entitled American is Thomas’ neighbor’s niece; she’s come to St. Michel to inspect the house bequeathed to her by her uncle. She’s blunt and presumptuous. (On Paris: “The French don’t deserve it.”) Like the blind man with his unwavering anger, she’s desperately holding onto a theory that her deceased uncle placed a curse on her family. She wants Thomas to pity her, to pay attention to her, and when Thomas politely brushes off her questions about her uncle and Florette’s murder, she barks, “Don’t you want to get to the bottom of it? Fill in the blanks? See that justice is done?” She cannot fathom that Thomas is “content” in the blanks. He’s someone who doesn’t feel entitled to anger.

Later in the novel, however, when Thomas’ childhood friend Bernhard, a C.I.A. agent, offers Thomas an opportunity to witness the interrogation of Florette’s murderers, Thomas agrees—though not without a canvas and an easel. For when he asks Bernhard what the main suspect looks like, Bernhard replies, “Shit, Thomas …. What you might expect. He looks like a Moroccan, for Chrissakes.” Thomas seeks to probe into the cliché modern terrorist and maybe find a way to frame Florette’s death.

Mr. Just charges this act of portraiture, set in an interrogation room, with the tension of the still-accumulating questions of the novel—questions of grief, of justice, of revenge, of “never.” Forgetfulness recognizes the ubiquity of “never” in the post-9/11 world (“Never again,” “We will never forget”), and the fear: If we forget, will we also forgive?

Mr. Just doesn’t answer these questions directly. Instead, he offers Thomas’ coy reply to a question posed by the interrogator: “[W]e must be careful what we forget, wouldn’t you say?” Thomas answers, “We must not be thoughtless.”

Julia Simon is studying history and comparative literature at the University of Chicago.