Wednesday, September 13, 2006

M31: A Family Romance, by Stephen Wright

I wrote this to get the reviewer spot at Bookslut. I thought I'd post it before it was completely forgotten. It's all right - the voice is a little bland, and I sound a little bit like a bored professional, but I don't think I say anything too stupid. The only lie in it is that I made myself sound more enthusiastic about the book than I actually was.

Here the truth: the book is very good and still probably not worth reading. It's scary: Wright's clearly an imaginative writer, far above the usual run, but it took very little time for me to feel like I'd reached the borders of his talent, at least as expressed in this book. I could tell that M31 was good and I still got bored. If it was a movie of similar quality, I would have been perfectly content and entertained and recommended it to my friends. But for some reason as soon as I pick up a book and it doesn't stack up to Tolstoy and Proust I wonder why the hell I'm wasting my time.

There's this scary line I read once from Simone Weil about how the only function a second-rate writer serves is to help create an atmosphere out of which a man or woman of genius can emerge. It's an awful thing to consider for someone with literary aspirations, but when I read fiction I feel like I agree. Maybe this is why so many writers nowadays cram their books with information. Beauty is a roll of the dice, but people will always appreciate facts. Anyway, here's the review:

Since at least the 1950s, when city dwellers started escaping to the suburbs instead of out to the countryside, American novels and movies have capitalized on something that can be identified as rural dread. From Shirley Jackson to Deliverance, these works have always played to the suspicion that moving among all these placid, friendly farmers and small town folk were murderers, sodomites, and the insane. Ever motel had an owner with a knife behind his back, every basement a deformed child produced by incest and too much power line radiation. An urbanite driving across these vast flat spaces in the middle of the country might well feel that anyone could go crazy out here. Couldn’t looking out at miles and miles of corn be like staring at wallpaper? Eventually shapes would start moving around in there, and if you kept looking long enough they would probably become real.

Aliens, Elvis, the Virgin Mary: why are they never spotted in New York? Stephen Wright never answers this question directly, but he gives us enough information to figure it out for ourselves. M31: A Family Romance features a family that the locals call the “saucer people.” They live in what was once a church; a satellite dish next to the old steeple scans the sky for signals. They are surrounded by acres of corn, with the nearest neighbor visible only with binoculars. A single road goes by the house, and one day it brings a couple – one of them is a woman named Gwen who is sure she was contacted by aliens. They are here to see Dash and Dot, the patriarch and matriarch of the family, and celebrities on the UFO contactee circuit with multiple books under their belt explaining the ways of the Etherians to humans.

Alone in the house while the couple goes to the conferences are their five children: Maryse has a baby of her own whom she only feeds weight loss smoothies, which is all she drinks; Dallas, their teenage son, prefers beer; Edsel, their younger son, is convinced that he is adopted, for no apparent reason; and Zoe, the youngest, screams constantly and has seizures that her parents interpret as communications with the Occupants, the aliens. Trinity, the teenage daughter who seems like the sanest of the bunch, apologizes to their guests: “This family should be driven around in a van and displayed at pro-abortion rallies.”

For the first third of the book, however, the family appears to be no stranger than most: a lot of pointless sullenness and hostility, wisecracks, constant complaining, and showing off one’s wit in front of the guests. (The book features one of the most hilarious family dinners ever depicted in print.) The only sign that there is anything at all odd is the metallic spaceship, known only as The Object, that family members go in and out of when the mood strikes them; they are waiting for a sign from The Occupants to put it into use.

The family seems no more messed up than any other, but the undercurrent of dread remains. Gwen, the visitor, feels that something is wrong, and wants desperately to leave. A gun disappears. Dallas, the oldest son, seems to hover on the edge of violence out of sheer boredom. Something is strange about the way Dash acts around Gwen and his own daughters. And there is always the corn, stretching out for miles, with, as Dallas explains, American nuclear warheads buried just beneath them, pointed at the Soviet Union. And there is the immense sky, unpolluted by city lights, which the family looks up at with binoculars. They are searching for M31, the galaxy in Andromeda that Dash identifies as our home, where the informed will go when the Etherians come. Wright has done his research; UFO chaser jargon is scattered throughout the book. (The fascinated, the skeptical, and the crazy are welcome to find out about “deros” – or detrimental robots – at the Wikipedia entry for Robert Shaver.)

From here, things begin to happen – strange violent things – and revelation follows revelation, but none of them seem to clear anything up; this is one of the few books where things make less sense the more you find out. At the end, you are unsure about what happened, let alone why people acted the way they did. This appears to be the point; the characters are mysterious even to each other. The novel’s approach to its people can be summarized by how Dash looks at his wife: “He stood there until her eyes met his and in them were neither questions nor answers but sharp facets of light glimpsed for the first time, the deeps of a stranger.”

What holds the book together is Wright’s prose: his sure sense of metaphor; his precise, serpentine sentences; and his ability to capture strange floating states of being: “White veins of lightning stood up stark as winter trees on the far sky where he half expected to spot a grim finger or two reaching through the low racing clouds.” (Occasionally, my reaction was more “Wait, what?” but the passages can usually be deciphered.) By the end of the book, Wright is unable to keep the family together, and the book drives itself into the sort of hallucinatory tinfoil-wearing madness that I was glad it had avoided until then, since crazy people are never all that interesting. The ending strikes me as a failure, because the heart of the book was the family, not the obsession with aliens. The conclusion succeeds, however, even as it spins out of control, in evoking a combination of the various forms of dread that have filled the rest of this strange, beautiful novel: rural, domestic, cosmic, American.

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