'Now and Again,' by Charlotte Rogan, is an absorbing search for truth

Charlotte Rogan's second novel takes readers from the Midwest to the deserts of Iraq as it follows a group of characters grappling for meaning in their lives.

Now and Again By Charlotte Rogan Little, Brown & Co. 448 pp.

Now and Again is Charlotte Rogan’s follow-up to her extraordinary debut novel "The Lifeboat," a book that was a huge critical and popular success. Rogan's new novel takes place on land, but readers will be delighted to know that it is no less exciting than her first.

"Now and Again" is extremely topical: At the broad level, it covers both mass incarceration and the Iraq War. At the highly personal, it grapples with the intersection of the mundane and the profound as her characters search for meaning and significance in their lives.    

The novel begins when Maggie Rayburn, a secretary at a munitions plant, finds evidence of a cover-up on her boss’s desk. She finds the incriminating papers at the same moment that “a shaft of late-winter sun” comes through the plate-glass window behind her supervisor’s desk.

That symbol of light continues throughout the novel, and stands in for the ways in which the truth is either exposed, or not, by the actions each character takes. Later in the book, for example, Maggie goes looking for more evidence in her company’s file room. The file room has very little natural light – an echo of the lack of transparency with which her firm handles its business.

Maggie can occasionally be a frustrating main character to read. She is eager to do right in the world, pouncing on every available political trend with a vengeance. Fortunately, Rogan breaks up the action by allowing the reader to follow a myriad of minor characters. But it’s also telling that in the book’s final third, when Maggie is no longer the center of the action, the plot begins to drag. While Maggie may seem to grate at times, she also provides a necessary ballast for the story to keep humming.

Readers who were fans of Marie Semple’s 2013 novel "Where’d You Go, Bernadette" will find some parallels between that book’s heroine and Maggie Rayburn. Like Bernadette, Maggie is drawn to finding conspiracies where there may be none. As Maggie begins to gather more evidence, she feels that she has unlocked a secret that makes her superior to her peers. Yet this change in her personality has ramifications for her social standing at home, at work, and in the community.

Rogan has a surprising gift for writing male characters that are believably constructed, from Maggie’s son, Will, to the American soldiers who have returned from Iraq with a weight on their shoulders. Everything about their voices, from the gritty language they use to their everyday concerns, feels fully developed.

What’s strange, though, is that Rogan’s two major plotlines, the one concerning Maggie and the one addressing the soldiers, never fully intersect. It is as if Rogan wanted to address two of the most important issues of our time, but didn’t quite figure out how to weave them together.

"Now and Again" certainly feels topical, lurching from the Iraqi desert in one chapter to the cornfields of the Midwest in the next. Although Maggie’s fight against wrongful incarceration takes place in the early 2000s, its concerns feels contemporary, despite occasional references to the presidency of George W. Bush.

Although the two plotlines never fully line up, they each stand completely on their own. Rogan writes successfully, and forcefully, about experiences that are foreign until they feel familiar, such as war and how combat affects individual participants. Much recent writing has come out about the Iraq War, asking where it does, or should, belong in our political history and national consciousness. Rogan’s narrative about the group of young men who seek to atone for their actions in the desert by producing a fact-finding website about the war fits handily into that body of work.   

As the unnamed captain with their unit says, “Ghosts are creatures of darkness. They might not ever disappear completely, but they lose some of their power in the light.” "Now and Again" is an absorbing and thoroughly modern look at the way individuals attempt to grapple with ghosts of all kinds – and how they succeed. 

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