Dybek doesn’t use it sparingly. His plot begins in 1950 in Santa Monica, Calif., moves a few pages later to Bar-le-Duc, France, in 1915, then takes a deep breath and jumps to Verdun in 1921. After this, we shift restlessly back and forth, from place to place and year to year until — a last flash-forward, we land back in 1950, just where we began.
The plot beneath this whipsawing time travel is very clever: A few years after the end of World War I, three people set out to identify an American amnesiac in an Italian hospital, a former ambulance driver like Tom. He may be Sarah’s lost husband or he may be someone who murdered their friend Paul’s wartime comrade. Or he may be both. In fictional geometry, triangles usually collapse. Tom loves Sarah, but Sarah loves the American patient (though she sleeps with Tom). Inevitably, “The Verdun Affair” overheats and explodes.
This is a story of operatic complexity, narrated in many voices, rich in imagery, but sometimes poor in discipline. Dybek paints a striking picture of the abandoned Verdun battlefield: “Bones in boots, a rusted bucket, a shattered root. Gravel and wheels of motorcars; spokes and strips of rag. A solitary tree, black against the sky, like a finger pressed to the lips calling for silence.” And Santa Monica, where “the street of bakeries and banks would become a shoulder of brown beach shrugging off a coat of ocean.” Or the beginning of intoxication, when “the drink had worked its way behind my eyes.”
On the other hand, here is Sarah eating a crème brûlée: “She crashed the spoon through the burnt sugar like a boy falling through ice on a lake.” And, in a comparison we doubt was ever really made, “a slick of beer shaped like the Baltic Sea spilled on the table.” And for the mot injuste: “She dropped my arm and waded away.”
These strained images are accompanied by a certain portentousness of tone, as if Tom has assumed the “paralytic melancholy” of the unknown amnesiac: “I ate a chunk of stale bread. I watched the fish in the pond. So this is life. So this is life.” Still gloomier is the effect created by ending section after section with an unanswered question: “Why should I have told you anything true?” Sarah asks. “Why should you now?” Tom replies. Which is varied by ending a section on a half-cadence, pointlessly ominous: “I used to love ghost stories.” “Do you?” “I used to.”