Tuesday, July 24, 2012

What Matters?

I finished reading Everything Matters by Ron Currie, Jr. last week but wanted to wait a bit before writing about the novel. I'm not sure why. Maybe it's because the last pages are still echoing in my mind, like a bell vibrating long after being struck. Currie has a distinctive and distinctly modern voice and I recognize in his writing if not direct influences than certainly reminders of other writers I love: he is like a modern Vonnegut, but with less ironic detachment and more poignancy; he is less full of himself than John Irving but writes with the same grand, epic, message-delivery type of style; his portrait of small-town life is as gritty, gutsy, and funny as Richard Russo's stories of small New England towns. I have a feeling that this is a book I will remember for a long time.

The basic premise is that a child is born and, thanks to an all-knowing God-like voice that he hears throughout his life (written to us in the second-person), he learns the exact date that the earth will end via a collision with a comet. The title character, Junior (perhaps a stand-in for Currie, Jr.), lives a tortured, troubled life, a tragic existence dominated by the overwhelming shadow of death, of non-existence. He is sent home from school for drawing monstrous, violent pictures, then placed in a "special" class where he meets the love of his life, Amy. Amy's own life is a horror, too, with a violently abusive mother, but she and Junior find a connection that sustains them, until the day he finally gets up the courage to tell her about the voice he hears and what he has learned. How does knowing the ultimate end of everything change--or not change--the way you live your life?

Everything Matters is a strange book in many ways but haunting nonetheless, filled with damaged souls, from the physcially deformed (his father lost two fingers in Vietnam; crazy-ass Reggie Fox, the paraplegic; Rodney, Junior's mentally challenged older brother) to the psychically deformed (Junior's silent, alcoholic mother; Amy, Junior). Each person has their story and their pain; Currie makes each of their stories distinctive and different, but all filled with pain and longing. Everyone wants something different--happiness, peace, respect, love--and they don't know how to get it.

The "God" chapters (which are numbered, counting down to the end, with one final twist) sound the most like Vonnegut, fileld with wise humor and ironic detachment. The voice knows everything there is to know and seems to enjoy revealing the secrets that only it (or he...or she) can know due to its omniscience: the secret thoughts, desires, and memories of every being in the world. The book twists and turns, but Currie has a way of making the implausible, plausible.

I also wondered why the cover was filled with so many different comets. Is it related to the idea of the multiverse, which is in itself a very Vonnegutian idea, the idea that one self always exists at a particular moment and that multiple selves branch off from that moment—every moment—along with the butterfly effect-ian idea that you don't know how a small moment can change things, how one small action, no matter how small, has the power to alter the universe—you step on a bumble bee, one thing happens; you don't step on it, the bee lives on, affecting lives so far down the road, you wouldn't be able to connect the two events if you tried.

Big ideas, powerful ideas. Not new ideas, perhaps, but certainly worth pondering. In Currie's world (and our own), teetering with the spectre of nuclear annihalation, haunted by the images of towers falling, and entertained with cinematic visions of the end of the world, you wonder how anything can mean anything--does it really matter what you say or do or believe? But in the end, after you turn the last page of this deeply affecting, strange novel, you understand why everything matters, even when nothing should matter.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Memory & Loss

I just finished two books this week that made me think quite a bit about the dual (dueling?) problems of memory and loss. The two books are Tom Perrotta's The Leftovers and Myla Goldberg's The False Friend. In each of these suburban-set novels, the quiet peace of middle class life is upset by a tragedy some years ago. In Perrotta's book, it is (as the government calls it) "a Rapture-like phenomenon" that gobbled up thousands of people around the world in the blink of an eye; in Goldberg's novel, it is the abduction of a childhood friend some twenty years before. In each book, the main characters are trying to figure out what to make of their lives in the face of their losses, and how to deal with the memories they're left with. Do we remember people as better than they were? Worse? Can we trust the important details of our memories or are they like dreams, half invented, half experienced?

In The Leftovers, Perrotta deftly weaves not a moralistic tale about the ridiculousness of those who believe in the Rapture (which would have been an incredibly easy mark) but, rather, the effects of the event on a small town and its inhabitants. It's a much smaller canvas he's working with and one that has echoes of the years after 9/11. This is especially true because the people who've been whisked away were not necessarily the saved. They weren't even necessarily Christian. Like 9/11, the people who disappeared were random: the old, the young, of all faiths and backgrounds, and--most disturbingly to one of the local ministers in Mapleton--the good and the bad. The minister is so frustrated by the Lord's mistake in not taking him and the thousands of true-believers, he publishes a gossip-filled rag in which he attempts to reveal just how awful some of the disappeared were.

The novel focuses on one family in Mapleton who, ironically, didn't lose anyone: Kevin and Laurie and their two teen aged children, Tom and Jill. Each responds differently to the losses around them, Laurie and Tom joining cults, Jill and Kevin struggling for connection in the rippling wake of the grief and mourning around them. Townspeople gather in bars and all-night block parties and reminisce about the missing, conversations taking on a predictable ebb and flow--asking if someone remembered a particular name, the blank statement "he's gone", then the flood of associations and memories. With no particular enemy, no one to get mad at or go to war against, no rhyme or reason for the disappearances, the people who remain helplessly flail against what's left of their lives.

Even so, this is not a post-apocalyptic, end-of-the-world type of novel. It's about how life goes on. Softball games are played, people go to their jobs, the paper gets delivered, religious nuts still are everywhere (and the wickedness of the horny preachers is always revealed in the end). There's humor and connection among the sadness, and maybe even a bit of redemption.

The canvas for Goldberg's novel is even smaller: the memory of one woman, repentant and ashamed for something she did years ago. As the novel opens, Celia is haunted by the voice and image of a cruel and powerful childhood friend, Djuna. Her friend, the Queen Bee of a small group of 11 year old girls, disappeared one day, becoming a face on the back of a milk carton. Though everyone knows she got into a car with a stranger (the story she told to the police), Celia is tormented by the memory of Djuna falling into a hole. Her lie pointed the searchers in the wrong direction. Djuna was never found. Though this event forms the central fulcrum for the novel, the story really is more about the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, what we remember, and how it affects us. Can we ever forgive ourselves for the supposed sins of our childhood?

It's not Djuna's disappearance that haunts the other characters in the novel. It's Celia and Djuna's cruelty to them that they cannot forget. A few of the characters had hoped and even prayed that the Queen Bee, who gave one girl a daily grade on her appearance, dress, and "presence", would disappear or die. Josie, an artist, baldly uses the painful images of her tormentors in her artwork; Leanne, a tortured and troubled child to begin with, left her identity behind; and Becky, smart and self-assured, turned to Chabad and the plentitude of children as a refuge. Celia's parents meanwhile, prefer to be blissfully unaware and disbelieving, an aging Ozzie and Harriet. They can no more believe that their daughter would lie than believe that Celia would do something to disturb their quiet afternoons (despite the slowly encroaching decrepitude of their neighborhood and their own house). Celia's brother Jeremy was the "bad" one, the one who almost overdosed as a teenager. Yet he redeemed himself in his parents' eyes because he was happily married and had a son, with another on the way. That fact, a slap in the face of Celia's long and unproductive relationship with her pothead boyfriend Huck, mingles with so many other unsatisfying aspects in Celia's life. As Huck observes toward the end of the book, she needs a whole lot of therapy.

In many ways, the novel leaves many questions open and unanswered: what did actually happen on the day Djuna disappeared? What really is the attraction between Huck and Celia? Is it really possible that the four remaining girls had not seen each other for twenty years, as they kept saying, having lived in the same small town through high school? But those are small questions, small nits to pick in an otherwise thought-provoking, troubling and personal book. For any of us with a slight bent towards regret and self-loathing, it's a disturbing book, although perhaps in the end it offers us some chance at redemption: maybe the past isn't as bad as we remember it. Maybe we weren't really horrible people, causing insult and injury to those around us. Or maybe we were worse than we thought.

One final question: why "false friend"? Who was it in the book who was false? Celia? Djuna? Huck? The title really is a nod to the reader to not trouble yourself with the mystery as to what really happened to Djuna, but to pay attention to those left behind, another group of sad "leftovers".