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Dave Eggers, Heroes of the Frontier; Sara Taylor, The Lauras; Adam Haslett, Imagine Me Gone – TLS

11/09/2016

“To be American is to be blank, and a true American is truly blank. Thus, all in all, Josie was a truly great American.” This is Dave Eggers’s narrator, at the beginning of his latest novel, Heroes of the Frontier, joking about the story’s heroine. Given the state of Josie, an angst-ridden single mother, it is a self-evidently false statement – but the logical fallacy is just one of many means Eggers uses to interrogate contemporary reasoning, or, to be grand about it, the logic of late capitalism. His book is among a group of recent novels about families which, like much current American fiction, are preoccupied by the legacy of trauma and the question of whether this can be overcome. The blankness referred to here is psychological as well as geographic. Josie has no idea where her family hail from, remembering only “vague references to Denmark . . . some connection to Finland”. So when, in quick succession, she is deserted by her husband, sued for malpractice as a dentist, and faced with the news that a young patient she encouraged to enlist has died in Afghanistan, she feels she has nowhere to run to but America’s furthest edge: the empty wilderness of Alaska. Packing her two small kids into the back of a rickety RV, she heads out into its vast open spaces, searching for “purity” – a blank canvas on which to redraw their lives.

Josie has become so worried about the “anxiety of influence” (Harold Bloom’s phrase, smuggled in by Eggers as if to pre-empt the inevitable comparisons here with Jonathan Franzen, Philip Roth et al) that she decides she is “done with all mouths, beginning with her own”. The gamble she is taking is that the “oblivion” of Alaska’s frozen landscape will help to mute and control her, to numb her anxiety and mitigate her sense of guilt. But the journey doesn’t turn out as she had hoped. Presented with the radical uncertainty of their new lives, her kids have endless questions about where they’re heading and what they’re doing, questions to which Josie has no ready answers. And she finds that having escaped the tyrannies of suburban life,the freedom of the open road presents unexpected dangers. Soon, her children’s interrogations are supplemented by her own as she tries to discern the level of threat. Some threats are just phantoms of the timid, suburban mind she is working to free herself from (a “leering” old man turns into a friend). Some are universal, such as the danger children let loose can pose to themselves. But others – like the father of a family her kids play with, who suddenly pulls out a gun – are more distinctly American. This ever-present menace feeds into the children’s enquiries about the world. Even the fiercely unafraid five-year-old Ana, when introduced to new phenomena like planets and stars, wants to know: “Are they good?”

As Josie leads her small tribe to ever more remote places – sleeping on the roadside, in campsites, or, like some latter-day Goldilocks, breaking into deserted cabins in the woods – her search becomes indistinguishable from flight. The family flees from forest fires, from possible emissaries of her husband, and from a past Josie wants to “write . . . in disappearing ink”. She is haunted by a scandal from decades earlier, known popularly as “Candyland”, involving the suicides of over-medicated Vietnam veterans at a hospital where her parents worked. Once Josie’s parents started dipping into the patients’ drugs family life collapsed as her mother fell into addiction and her father absconded to Cambodia. So the idea of starting again is not new: we learn that at seventeen Josie “emancipated herself” from her parents and then moved around, living in Panama, London and Spain. But in modern America, movement has become a dubious practice, associated by Josie with failure, insecurity and her parents’ disgrace: “Was it wonderful to have changed so many times? She suspected it was not”.

Candyland stands as the emblematic centre of Eggers’s novel, from which the ills of American – and by extension, Josie’s – life flow. The country is ignorant of the wars it is fighting (Josie and a lover argue about whether her patient died in Afghanistan or Iraq, uncertain as to how long hostilities have lasted), its people increasingly aggressive and entitled (she singles out the “breed” of lycra-clad cyclists and pony-tail mums whose rage erupts at any infringement of what they believe is their due), tranquillizing themselves with drugs, or, like Josie, unable to get through the day without knocking back the wine, and penning their children in to keep them safe. Against all this enclosing, sedating and forgetting (here we are again in Gore Vidal’s United States of Amnesia), there is the wonder and subversive riot of Josie’s children: the wild, red-haired Ana, a force of nature, “bumping into things, yelling randomly, making up words”; and the sensitive Paul, three years older, who acts as Ana’s proxy parent. What Josie wants for her children, above all, is that they don’t merely succumb to life, but show courage in the face of it; and the further they travel, the more resilient they become. Heroes of the Frontier ends with one final test of endurance, in which by heading into disaster the family overcome it, approaching “something like sublimity”, a touch of American greatness. The frontier may be long gone, but setting the inertia of his countrymen in his sights, Eggers is banking on the idea that pushing ahead still lies deep in the American psyche: “She wanted to tell every mother, every father: There is meaning in motion”.

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Sara Taylor’s second novel, The Lauras, also takes the form of an American road trip. This time it is the wife who walks out on her husband, bundling her adolescent daughter into the car one night and setting off on a journey that will take the two of them zigzagging across the country. The Lauras is the (still) rarely told story of a girl’s romance about the life of her mother – here less a source of anxiety than of mystery. The novel is narrated some thirty years after the trip by Alex, the androgynous daughter, in a Southern vernacular thick with the imagery of sweet things (“the land behind us was a caramel-peanut-butter smudge”) and of blood, or menstruation (“she lay back in the trail of the dying sun,it’s blood clotting in her clothing”), reflecting both the teenage sexuality of the speaker and also something of the country’s immaturity.

Held in her daughter’s regard, “Ma” is an alluring, enigmatic presence: chain-smoking to keep herself awake, pulling in at truck stops when she is too tired to drive, and grabbing greasy burgers for the two of them to munch on. The reason for their leaving is undivulged; Ma tells Alex only that she wants to “figure out which way is up”. As they cross state lines, improvising their lives, it becomes apparent that Ma is in pursuit of the existence she had before her daughter was born. Astonishing as this idea is to Alex, her mother’s focus on herself is also oddly reassuring: Alex’s questions about the safety of their trip are breezily batted away: “Quit worrying kid. We should be golden”. Pressed to reveal her story, Ma remains taciturn, only slowly doling out the tale after successive dramatic encounters with the people or places she once knew.

What Alex finally gleans is that her mother was abandoned repeatedly by immigrant parents who “were horrible at life”, forgetting to clothe or feed her, and who “didn’t understand how America worked”. Moved between group homes, then living in a station wagon, drinking absinthe, possibly dabbling in prostitution, she encountered a succession of girls called Laura (the intensity of her relationship with the first makes the name talismanic), each of whom demonstrated styles of being that, even in unpromising circumstances, offered new possibilities. Alex herself gets into trouble when she hitches to another city to post her father an (untrackable) letter, forced into performing a blow job on the man who picks her up. But though she later traces “the blank in me to that event”, when Alex comes to explain to Ma what happened, she creates a story that allows her to hold back the worst of her journey. She does this in part because she has no words for what has been done to her, nor her ambivalent feelings about it, but also because she’s learnt from her mother’s continence.

What marks Taylor’s novel out from many of its contemporaries is how little psychic damage Alex and her mother sustain – or pass on – from their experiences. Indeed,the storytelling mode allows them to cast their lives as adventures through which they “hustle”, extemporize, love and sometimes act heroically. Alex understands that “reality rarely rustles up a satisfying narrative shape”, but her “mythic desire” gives her the ability to see her mother not just in relation to herself but as autonomous, sometimes even as legendary. When Ma finally reunites with one of the Lauras, Alex describes them as “outside of humanity, the way lovers are”. There’s a lesson here, important for storytellers and for women, about not giving yourself away too easily, about possessing your own life. What it instils in Alex is the bravery to be herself (to maintain an open sexuality and not be boxed into definition) and confidence in her instincts: “I didn’t know where I was going, and I didn’t have to know. The road was beckoning; all I had to do . . . was follow where it led”.

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The intergenerational trauma at the heart of Adam Haslett’s new novel is rather harder to shake off. Imagine Me Gone features five narrators, all members of one Anglo-American family beset by the “beast” of mental illness, their lives recounted over half a century, by the parents, John and Margaret, and their three children, Michael, Celia and Alex. As one might expect of a novel exploring the irrational, there is also much concern with form – from the repressive British manners John has inherited (“asking questions wasn’t the proper form”) to the linguistic and political structures in which Michael becomes passionately interested. The novel itself is tightly formatted: divided into three acts, with an epilogue and prologue, and each section further demarcated by the different speaking voices. We begin near the end: Alex, the youngest sibling, is at a cabin in the American countryside, and traumatized by something terrible that has happened to Michael. At first he imagines the sound of a neighbour chopping wood might revive his brother – a desire stronger than reason: “What kind of person would I be if I didn’t try to call him back?”

Then comes Michael’s voice: ghostly, disembodied (and yet, like all voices in fiction, as if looming out of the ether). In what we will learn is his characteristically parodic mode, Michael speaks “as” the telephone answering machine of his  therapist, one Dr Walter Benjamin. And because his is a parodic voice, always carrying multiple meanings, this is also a suicide note – a salve to himself and anyone out there listening: “[if] it seems likely that the words you are about to speak into this machine may be your last, then please know that you tried very hard indeed, and that you loved your family as deeply as you could”. In a way that only fiction can, Imagine Me Gone then proceeds to do what Alex wanted, what anyone bereaved wants: to bring the dead back to life.

Haslett’s novel masterfully negotiates the different planes on which it operates, sustaining for a long time the ambiguity whose exploration, he has said in interview, is the business of fiction. From the beginning, John expresses anxiety about the future of his garrulous son: words pour out of Michael as if nothing can contain him. John moves the family about, even back to England for a while in pursuit of work that never materializes. And this failure to settle down symbolizes to Margaret her husband’s failure to get a grip on life. On returning to the States, he commits suicide – the only way to chase the “monster” of depression out of him. Michael, called home from school in England, finds that he is numb: “You were all so upset. But I didn’t feel anything. Nothing. I was blank”, he tells Alex later. The pain of this moment lingers on in Michael’s life as an indefinable ache – something for which he finds correlatives in ideas about slavery’s “transgenerational haunting” and black music: “The backward ache. That’s what music is. The trouble – for me – is that at some stage I realized those aches, they have a history”.

From these traumatic beginnings, his siblings develop lives of ordinary difficulty, though perhaps with greater wariness: Celia struggles over the question of motherhood, Alex in building a monogamous relationship with his boyfriend. And their chapters convey this, expressed in the particularity of the real. But Michael is never ordinary: from the beginning his flamboyant intelligence and intense political theorizing make it seem as if he were somehow a different order of being. His chapters, reflecting this apartness, are delivered as exercises in literary style that challenge the “realist” frame surrounding him – whether in letters to his aunt, where his commitment to the fantastic, comic form overtakes the plausibility of events he is relating; or in medical questionnaires, in which his answers satirize the premiss of healthcare, refusing its narrow logic, while also being utterly honest: “What are your treatment goals? 1. Ordinary happiness 2. Racial justice”.

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The degree to which Haslett allows the reader to entertain the possibility that these everyday forms and political structures that shape our lives may be at fault, and not Michael, is the degree to which ambiguity is richly sustained in Imagine Me Gone. But Michael’s obsessions are not just a matter of worldly critique; they are also a product of his solipsism (“the problem – for me”). At the beginning of the novel Margaret reflects on Armies of the Night and Norman Mailer’s idea that “it’s in motion that Americans remember”. But Michael never finds a cohort or movement, remaining boxed in, static in his obsessions and unchallenged in his relationships. While this may be true to the character of obsession or mental illness, it comes close to manipulation in terms of the novel. Successive black girlfriends remain somehow beyond his reach, as if such relationships were themselves a category error, outside of acceptable forms. Looking back on the story’s beginning and her love affair with John, Margaret says: “I had that American openness he admired”. However, unlike Dave Eggers and Sara Taylor, who keep faith with the idea of American openness and the possibility for remaking that it entails, Adam Haslett casts doubt on this notion. Sealing Michael’s fate from the outset, he suggests instead, as Celia advocates, the need for “acceptance” of who we are. Alongside this stoicism, in the presentation of Michael’s isolation, and the speed with which people stop listening to him, there is also something gloomier in play here, like the closing of the American mind.

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