A Quiet Ending to a Loud Story: Sam Friedman on Prescription for a Superior Existence by Josh Emmons


Prescription for a Superior Existence, Josh Emmons, Scribner

The title Prescription for a Superior Existence calls to mind some archetypal self-help book that one might be better off avoiding. In fact, it is the uninventive name of the cult in the novel and feels like a place-holder lying in wait for the author to select something more edgy. The novel’s cover is equally uninteresting: a nicely-made bed in a rather picture-perfect bedroom. And frankly, upon completion of reading the book the relevance of the image to the story is indiscernible. However, it is only here where Emmons seems to have any dearth of creativity. PASE is a thought-out, well-orchestrated adventure of seemingly random and out-of-control events that consistently hide the truth, which is part of what seems to make the novel so universally true. One must return to the old adage of judging books by their cover, because the contents of this seemingly obtuse jacket are vibrant.

The opening two pages of Josh Emmons’s Prescription for a Superior Existence contain all of the pieces of an introductory paragraph to a well-thought-out academic argumentation essay: reference to the ensuing themes, citation of a few important facts, a summation of some points, and, of course, a hook. The hook is a simple one, but its simplicity is no detriment to its size: “…at midnight on Sunday I will, after delivering a euology that is both inspirational and absolute, with a solemnity great enough for the occasion, conduct and preside over – I am choosing my words carefully and none other will do – the end of the world.” Even the first paragraph betrays themes important to the life of main character Jack Smith: “In this part of the world it is light for half the year and dark the other half. Sometimes at night I look at the halos around the window blinds and breathe in salty air redolent of afternoon trips to the beach I took as a boy, my hands enclosed in my parents’, my feet leaving collapsed imprints in the sand, my mind a whirl of whitewashed images. I remember how the shaded bodies lying under candy-cane umbrellas groped for one another, and how I pulled my mother and father toward the ice-cream vendors, and how I fell in love with the girls who slouched beside their crumbling sandcastles. The sun an unblinking eye on our actions. The waves forever trying to reach us. From the beginning there was so much longing, and from the beginning I could hardly bear it.

Immediately this paragraph touches on the issues of parentage, romance, and a crushing reality that seems at times to be inescapable. To the book’s advantage, in particular, is the staggering relevance of its placement in time; global warming and the financial recession are both present in the novel’s diegesis. It is this devilish presentation of temporal relevance that allows Emmons to illicit all of the questions he does with the introduction of the cult, “Prescription for a Superior Existence.” Is the world really coming to an end, if this cult is referencing a real scientific truth? Is religion the answer? What will happen if I don’t make the right choice? The relevance of the story’s setting forces the reader into a temporary mania that makes Jack Smith’s own mania more tangible.

PASE is, in part, a thinly-veiled criticism of contemporary culture and its excesses: the workaholic, alcoholic, substance abuser; the normal member of society with nothing to look forward to but the “next thing.” Emmons accurately diagnoses contemporary American society’s ailment. Upon Jack Smith’s admission into PASE, he goes to see Ms. Anderson, the center’s director. She tells him: “‘Like most people, you are unhappy because you aren’t fulfilled by what you have. You always want more, and that more is never enough. Throughout your life you’ve desired things, only to find after getting them that contentment lies in the next thing. And the next and the next and the next. Sadly but predictably, the result of all this deferred satisfaction for you and others has been the same: anxiety and depression. And if allowed to continue it will lead finally to the crowning tragedy, ambivalence.’”

This presentation of terrifying truths out of the mouth of someone one might fear, an administrative figure in a cult, feeds into one of the things that Emmons and Prescription do so well: to accurately and viscerally create the feeling of being trapped in the PASE center, as well as the complete process of being brainwashed or converted. Jack Smith describes his mental processes, and the reader is able to watch his thoughts and opinions transform: first insisting not to take part in the center whatsoever, then in pretending to take part while secretly mocking the whole process, deciding to just take part because it’s really not so bad and what else is he going to do, and finally being completely devoted to the entire religion.

The perception of cults in general gets addressed thoroughly and seamlessly in the novel: “‘You’re trying to kill me.’ ‘No.” She smiled beatifically. ‘We are trying to save you.’” A cult, in general, presents itself as the entity – the thing that will save mankind from himself and return him to God – that would abduct people for “their [own] sake,” and brainwash them into following their ways. What PASE does in such an exciting way is it clashes these two things, the “outside” versus the “inside,” and the way they are both flawed. The solution is not so polarized as people perpetually look for. Emmons presents, in his fanatical characters and storylines, the underlying lesson of balance: balance between excess and asceticism, balance between complete reproach of cults/religion as false and misleading, and complete acceptance and total support. At the end of the novel, PASE is not abolished, but there is no final Synergy (death of the entire cult). Likewise, Jack and his love-interest Mary Shoale return to San Francisco but he continues to be a Paser, ostensibly. Compromise. Balance. This is mirrored in his writing style: balance between tons of literary device and straight dialog. Prescription is the story of a man in flux, flailing between extremes until the answers come to him. It is neither admonition of religion nor of the normal life. The solution, perhaps, is that there is no solution. Although he seems to suggest that love is all you can truly find to make life bearable, to make it even wonderful.

Despite how outlandish some of its unpredictable revelations may be, somehow they seem to stick the moment they hit. They even seem to register beforehand, if subconsciously. Facts as inconceivable in the beginning as the fact that Montgomery Shoale, the leader and founder of PASE, turns out to be the main character’s rapist biological father seem to be presciently revealed and undeniably true despite a superficial implausibility. This seems to adhere to the Buddhist-like phrase that ends the novel: “…this is all there was, is, and ever will be.” There is comfort to be found in the novel’s devil-may-care sense of narrative flow.

Emmons writes very similarly to Chuck Palahniuk in his use of the anti-heroic main character whose vices play a heavy role in his life and whose slightly unsavory sexual habits are a point of contention. This comparison is by no means a rebuke or insult, either. Like Palahniuk, Emmons controls pace and rhythm deftly while never letting the story drag and consistently evading predictability. He manages to cherry-pick the kinds of events that lie on the fringe of believability, but never meander outside of realism.

Indeed, the structure of PASE’s narrative itself calls to mind Palahniuk’s Survivor, beginning with the End and retelling what came before, what led to this character’s final ostensible moment of demise. Emmons even calls to mind the metaphor, “I may be as confused as a pilot with spatial disorientation, in danger of mistaking a graveyard spiral for a safe landing, when up is really down, sky is earth, and life – suddenly and irreversibly – is really death,” where Palahniuk’s main character is on a plane plummeting to Earth. Further comparisons can be drawn in that Survivor, too, is about a fictional pleasure-avoidant cult, and the perceived imminence of death. Perhaps Emmons’s key distinction from Palahniuk, however, is his language style; where Palahniuk swears by a rugged, fleshy tone, Emmons employs slightly more romanticized flourishes of language.

Everything is in its right place in PASE, even when it might seem to the contrary at first. The pendulum may swing wildly, but it always returns to center. And the story serves as a firm reminder that no matter how great the diversion from the straight line from A to B, there can always be a quiet ending to a loud story. To quote Bjorn Bjornson, a villager in the Scandanavian village in which Jack Smith finds himself for the beginning-slash-end of the book:
“In religion, in the end, the new is neither better nor worse than the old; beliefs and insights swirl and constellate over time without shedding any greater light than what has pulsed weakly throughout the ages. Reason and passion enact a tortoise and hare race in our hearts, and what seems true and beautiful today may seem false and hideous tomorrow.”

More Schizophrenic than Southern: Ashly Hood on Katie Crouch’s novel Girls in Trucks


Girls in Trucks, Katie Crouch, Back Bay Books

Katie Crouch’s debut novel, Girls in Trucks, is a story that spans twenty years in the life of a South Carolina debutante, but the voice throughout the text is uneven, pithy at times, and ultimately leaves one wondering, “how many mint juleps did this woman have while she wrote this?” The narrative begins with a background on our protagonist Sarah Walter’s Southern upbringing and opens at “dancing school,”(or debutante society in a group dubbed The Camellia’s,) establishing place, time, and a murky motive for the rest of the story. The Ted Wheeler episode is, however, just odd, and doesn’t really set up with the rest of the story, nor does it really come back in any form later in the novel. The radical shift between chapters One and Two seems, in retrospect, a harbinger of the schizophrenic voice that dominates the rest of the narrative.

Sarah Walters is a Southern debutante who flees the South for college up North, presumably in search of herself. Brief vignettes of different men, drinking, and drugs make for a patchwork of chapters and information, skipping forward at annoyingly random intervals and occasionally describing the lives of some of Sarah’s friends, having nothing to do with Sarah’s own destructive path. The power of some of the narration and realness of the dialogue in places is not, unfortunately, enough to keep the reader from feeling as though the rug is constantly being pulled from under her. The drinking is brought up casually, discarded, and comes back later, used almost as a conversation piece; granted, drinking is a fairly central activity for those of us lucky enough to live in the South, but it seems to lurk dangerously in the background before being forgotten altogether. Likewise, the references to pot are annoying and have little to do with anything, other than typical teenage/young adult experimentation.

There are several places where Crouch’s intention does seem to shine through, however; “Snow in Bangladesh,” while tonally bitter, resigned and sarcastic, ends with a bit of hope, and sounds also much more adult than many of the previous chapters. In the chapter where Sarah and her current boy toy travel to Vermont to visit fellow Camellia Bitsy and her husband John, the narration and dialogic exchange ring very true and the interaction between John and Sarah leaves us wondering if she will ever find a good man. In the chapter where Sarah, old friend (and recovering drug addict) Charlotte, and Bitsy lunch together in Manhattan (where, apparently, most Southern girls end up), the exchanges are biting, resentful, and somewhat Sex and the City-ish, but nonetheless more real than much of the first half of the book; it is in this chapter that we find out Bitsy has cancer, and not long to live. Therefore, in Bitsy’s chapter of post-mortem observation over her husband’s new girl, the prose is finally, truly beautiful, and may be what Crouch struggled find throughout the entire novel.

I found myself unable to stick with this novel for long, and felt it to be more of a series of essays than a cohesive narrative; that said, however, the end of the novel—the last 3 chapters or so–were far more compelling and mature than the rest of the story. It felt as though both Crouch and her protagonist finally reached adulthood, a time to put away childish things and realize that, no matter how we start our lives, there is hope, after all.

A Sad-Sack Story: Jason Pettus reviews Jack O’Connell’s novel The Resurrectionist


The Resurrectionist, Jack O’Connell, Algonquin Books


I have been a twenty-year fan and student of the related 20th-century art movements Dadaism and Surrealism, since first getting exposed to them as an undergraduate in the ’80s. In fact, these art movements are the closest I arguably come to being legitimately “scholarly” on any topic in terms of the amount of knowledge I have about the movements. One of the things I’ve learned through such study is that these days what the general culture thinks of as ‘surrealist’ is a far cry from how the original Surrealists defined it and themselves. When these original cutting-edge artists of the 1910s, ’20s and ’30s (the ones being equally defined by the new fields of Modernism and Freudian psychoanalysis) declared that they were trying to “capture the essence of a dream” in their artistic work, they actually meant that they were trying to capture the elusive pattern and rhythm of a dream itself—that simultaneous logic/illogic within dream we so easily accept, but is so hard to accept when conscious. As the decades have progressed with early-Modernism turning into late-Modernism, Pop Art, and, finally, Postmodernism, the entire concept of Surrealism has been co-opted by the advertising industry and Hollywood to now mostly mean, “Hey, look! Weird shit!”


What this means, then, is that there’s actually two kinds of Surrealism out now with discerning fans being able to tell the difference immediately. There is the pure, old-school Surrealism of the original movement, embodied by contemporary authors like Haruki Murakami and David Mitchell who construct elaborate experiments in actually reproducing the logic and emotions of a dream-like state. Then there is the cartoonish, Hollywoodized version of Surrealism, where an author simply writes about strange crap hoping that the distraction of the crap itself will hide the fact that there’s nothing really compelling behind it. Which of these, I hear you asking, best describes the book under review today, the 2008 cult hit and so-called contemporary Surrealist tale The Resurrectionist by Jack O’Connell? Well, I won’t keep you in suspense anymore—it’s the second. The second, oh Lord it’s the second, an infinitely frustrating collection of random, unexplained, weird horseshit whipped at the reader’s face at breakneck speed with none of it making any sense and none of it connecting to the other weird, random parts. O’Connell’s novel is basically the equivalent of handing a person a box full of Christmas ornaments and yelling, “Shake it! It’s pretty! Shake it! It’s pretty!” And so it may be, but such a fact certainly doesn’t make it good literature nor does it make it an accurate reflection of what a dream is actually like. And that’s the difference between someone like O’Connell and an actual Surrealist, O’Connell ultimately hopes that you’ll be distracted by the shiny ornaments being shaken about and not notice that there’s no actual tree.


In fact, O’Connell starts throwing out the random crap early and quick in The Resurrectionist; it is the story of sad-sack pharmacist Sweeney, caretaker of a son named Danny who is in a persistent coma, through an accident he still silently blames on his ex-wife. His life a shambles, dealing unsuccessfully with anger issues, Sweeney has been lured to a little town called Quinsigamond in order to work for the mysterious private Peck Clinic, mostly as a way of getting his son accepted into their secretive yet widely admired coma-care program. But see, right here is where O’Connell already starts going wrong with this story by making even the details of the clinic itself inconsistent. Although our story is set in the modern world, for some reason the nurses all have old-fashioned ’50s uniforms out there at the forbidding Victorian mansion in the middle of nowhere that serves as the clinic’s campus. Plus, for this being a bizarre, private, family-funded organization that doesn’t share its results or even have a clear mission, the entire rest of the contemporary medical community seems to be big fans. This is what took Sweeney out there in the first place, after all, having his boring ol’ “real-world” doctors in Ohio recommend the clinic to him, despite the clinic itself literally being like something ripped out of an old Frankenstein movie.


Now, fans will say that this is exactly how it should be, that The Resurrectionist is supposed to be filled with weird crap that makes no sense because that’s what Surrealism is; but that’s not what Surrealism is. Actual Surrealism is supposed to make sense, just the kind of twisted, illogical sense that we can only accept while in a dream state. The details of the environment are supposed to actually relate to each other within a Surrealist tale, not just exist in their own hermetically weird states alongside all the other bizarre details. O’Connell’s book feels, especially the further you get into it, like he has simply written down a bunch of random stuff that popped into his head and sounded “weird” to him, without bothering to relate any of it to each other or even adhere to the most basic precepts of those concepts.


One of the running ideas in The Ressurectionist is that Danny had been a big fan of this giant children’s media empire called “Limbo,” consisting of a hit TV show, action figures, merchandise and a long-running comic book. O’Connell even includes a number of issues of the comic in the actual manuscript of the book; but why call it a comic, I wonder, when they’re actually fully narrative short stories? What hit children’s TV show in the 2000s is possibly going to be about a group of eastern European circus freaks in the 1920s wandering aimlessly through a fictional foreign land named after the Yiddish word for Hell, living a bleak and torture-filled life and spouting existentialist dialogue more appropriate for a Beckett play than any Japanimation children’s show in existence?


Sure, it’s weird and random, I’ll give you that; but if all I want is weird and random, I can sit at home flipping through television channels watching two seconds at a time of each for two or three hours in a row. Like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is weird and random; and like so much of The Resurrectionist, that too is not nearly what I’d call an entertaining artistic experience. What I want from a Surrealist project is a world that almost makes complete sense, but with just a whiff of strangeness around its corners, a fleeting glimpse of something moving just on the edge of my vision. What I want from a Surrealist project is something that makes me feel the way I do when I’m actually dreaming, a moment for example where a friend flaps his arms in the middle of a conversation and flies away, and I don’t even think twice about it; what I don’t want is a collection of random details that all draw undue attention to themselves, each of them standing in the corner of the room and waving their arms and screaming, “Look at me! Look at me! I’M WEIRD!” And unfortunately, that’s mostly what The Resurrectionist consists of, with certainly there not being a compelling story holding it all together, nor compelling characters, nor even a consistent personal style.


In fact, here’s the simple insulting truth of the matter—by the time I had reached the end, I cared about the story and was invested in the characters so little that I didn’t even bother reading the last ten pages. I could no longer even follow whatever the hell was going on with the castle and the devil and the chicken-boy or whatever the fuck it all was. This is that’s a terrible, terrible thing to say about a novel—that after reading 300 pages of it, you didn’t care enough to bother with what’s supposed to be the most important ten pages of all. And this says more about this book than probably anything else I might be tempted to write.



This review first appeared at the Chicago Center for Literature and Photography (cclapcenter.com).

A Dark Time in the Delta: Jayne Pupek reviews Hillary Jordan’s novel Mudbound



Mudbound, Hillary Jordan, Algonquin Books


Hillary Jordan’s prize-winning debut novel, Mudbound, is a compelling and disturbing portrayal of life in the Mississippi Delta in the 1940s and the bitter racial divide that marked this period of our history. Jordan’s story is convincingly told from the alternating viewpoints of her characters: the white McAllan family and the black Jackson family.


Memphis-born Laura McAllan is trying to raise her children on her husband’s Mississippi Delta farm–a place she nicknames Mudbound because of the constant muck that covers everything. With no running water, inside bathroom, or electricity, this is not the life Laura knew or expected. She tries to makes the best of her situation, a task that becomes more difficult when her calloused and bigoted father-in law comes to live with them.


The Jacksons, the black sharecropping family who live and work on the McAllan’s land, struggle to make ends meet. Hap farms the land while his wife Florence works as Laura’s maid. When Hap ends up bedridden, the family’s struggle intensifies.


While the McAllans and Jacksons face hardships, they maintain a precarious but peaceful coexistence until Henry McAllan’s younger brother Jamie, and Ronsel, the Jackson’s oldest son, return from the war to work the land. Jamie McAllan, Laura’s brother-in-law, possesses qualities her husband lacks. He is handsome, daring, and charming. He is also haunted by memories of combat and drinks excessively to chase away his demons. Ronsel Jackson returns a war hero, but his brave defense of his country does nothing to change how he is viewed in the Jim Crow South. When he dares to exit a store though the front door reserved for whites, the anger of the locals remind him little has changed in the Mississippi Delta. Ronsel reflects:

I never thought I’d miss it so much. I don’t mean Nazi Germany, you’d have to be crazy to miss a place like that. I mean who I was when I was over there. There I was a liberator, a hero. In Mississippi I was just another nigger pushing a plow. And the longer I stayed, the longer that’s all I was.

Ronsel and Jamie embark on an unlikely friendship that continues despite warnings and objections not only from their families, but also from other townsfolk who disapprove of their bond. The novel accelerates in a breathtaking pace toward a conclusion that is both horrifying and unforgettable.


One of the novel’s greatest strengths lies in the skill with which Jordan reveals her characters through six alternating voices. This technique allows the reader to see characters as not only they appear to themselves, but also as they appear to the other characters who narrate the story. The result is a more dimensional view of each individual. Laura, for example, sees Pappy’s overt racism, but she would not describe herself in those same terms. It is only when we witness Laura through Florence’s eyes that we see Laura’s more subtle acts of racism.


If I have any complaint at all, it is that the characters tend to be too clearly divided between heroes and villains. Pappy, for instance, is a bigoted and hateful man who shows kindness to no one. While his complete lack of any goodness makes it easy for the reader to cheer his ultimate demise, I think it is perhaps too easy. I find characters at their most compelling and authentic when they possess some balance of good and bad traits.


It is little surprise that Mudbound was awarded the 2006 Bellwether Prize, founded by Barbara Kingsolver to recognize literature of social responsibility. Jordan has employed the finest storytelling skills to illuminate a dark and shameful part of our history. Mudbound is a stellar accomplishment by a gifted new novelist.




Jayne Pupek is the author of the recently released novel, Tomato Girl (Algonquin Books), and a book of poems titled Forms of Intercession (Mayapple Press). She resides near Richmond, Virginia.


Of Real & Symbolic Parenthood: Diane Greco on Samuel Shem’s novel The Spirit of the Place



The Spirit of the Place, Samuel Shem, Kent State University Press


Orville Rose, a recently divorced doctor without borders and perpetual adolescent, is living impecuniously in Italy with a passionate Italian yoga teacher when he learns that his mother has died. The terms of her will stipulate that he will inherit a large sum of money, so long as he returns to his childhood home for a year and thirteen days. Broke, he reluctantly ends his Italian idyll to return to Columbia, New York, a town “plagued by breakage,” where anything that can go wrong, usually does—spectacularly. So begins The Spirit of the Place, the fourth novel by Samuel Shem, also known as Stephen Bergman, MD, the Boston psychiatrist perhaps best known for The House of God (1978), his bestselling novel about one man’s coming of age as a physician in a hospital that was by turns an erotic funhouse and a chamber of corporeal horrors.


Shem’s latest effort is not as raunchy as The House of God, but his preoccupation with the powers and limitations of healers persists in The Spirit of the Place. Having returned to Columbia and now living in a turret room in his mother’s house, Orville Rose also comes back to small-town doctoring encouraged by his old mentor, the quirky local physician Bill Starbuck, who encourages smoking in his office and whose cabinets are full of vials of “Starbusol,” a homemade nostrum that Starbuck hands out when a placebo is indicated (and sometimes when it’s not). When Orville is not ministering to Columbia’s sick and broken, he is fending off intrusions from his dead mother, who appears at intervals from beyond the grave in order to continue to make Orville feel guilty for not making her happiness his first priority just as she did in life.  


Superficially, Orville’s task is to vanquish his mother’s lingering ghost and choose between two lovely women—the tantric Italian of the book’s opening scenes and Miranda Braak, an amateur historian whose long view of Columbia and its history give Orville a new and much needed perspective on his own biography. Despite the pleasures of such a choice—we should all be so lucky—the task is harder than it sounds for the simple reason that Orville cannot get far enough away from his mother’s influence to know his own mind in affairs of the heart. However, Shem is too canny about the dynamics of families to blame bad mothering for his character’s problems and let fathers entirely off the hook.


In fact, the crux of the book—and its most moving scene—concerns the relationship Orville enjoys with Bill Starbuck, his accidental father. In this scene, Starbuck has had a stroke and his condition is deteriorating. Orville stands by, doing the small things that need to be done at such a juncture—in this case, he gives Bill a shave. This apparently small and simple job requires Orville to split himself, imaginatively and empathically—to feel both the razor in his hands and Bill’s face underneath it:

As Orville got into it, it was as if he were feeling his own stubble and the razor cutting through his own lather. And then, under his attention, it transformed again, so it wasn’t even that he was shaving Bill or shaving himself but that shaving was happening. […] The shaving became a suturing up, across a mirror, across a fleshy gap.


Empathy in ordinary life is at once so pervasive, so fleeting, and so unsettling that it is difficult to do much more than note it when it happens. Yet, Shem takes the moment and spreads it out for us anatomizing it as a good teacher might. Then, to make sure we understand what is at stake in such a charged moment, when subjects and objects dissolve into some third thing beyond selfishness and self-consciousness, Shem seizes the metaphor again and elaborates on it:

It isn’t his heart or my heart, it’s the human heart, the human journey, common and ordinary and a big deal and a small deal both and the only deal really and available to us all at no extra cost if we can face it, bear it, share it.

Shem’s point is a good one: nurturing attention can be a balm to a young person plagued by hunger for an absent parent, or by an intrusive one like Orville’s mother (or, worst of all, by both). Shem’s novel is a tender exploration of real and symbolic parenthood, of the power of benign authority to combine with simple empathic concern to heal old wounds and to support young adults (and the young-at-heart) finish the tasks of adolescence.

Similarity in Dysfunction: N. Dalton Speidel on Preeta Samarasan’s novel Evening is the Whole Day


Evening is the Whole Day, Preeta Samarasan, Houghton Mifflin


Those immortal words, “Can’t we all just get along?”, are never really answered in a positive manner. Indeed, asking the question at all testifies to the content of the relationship. Preeta Samarasan juxtaposes the word with the sword in fine style in her debut novel, Evening is the Whole Day, illustrating that the answer to the question of getting along is never easy, never a straight shot, never without qualifications. Against the backdrop of conflict and revolution in Malaysia , a family cuts each other with their tongues. One of many snide comments from Paati, the mother of Appa, one of the main characters and the patriarch of the book, plants a seed of doubt in his mind. Like an insidious snake it wraps around his train of thought. Writhing, enveloping, and smothering, it tightens and makes Appa begin to see the whole world as a dangerous disappointment. How he reacts to the other characters, and especially his wife,  makes for more friction and a tangle of misperceived intent. It is no coincidence that the title of the novel comes from a classic Tamil work exploring the bonds of friendship, love, and the effects of separation. Samarasan sees the word ‘bonds’ as a literal entity and elaborates on this theme in her shimmering prose. Instead of slicing away the constriction, the characters of Evening is the Whole Day chisel away at each other’s very essences doing more damage in the end than the mental binding ever could.

We see the familial and the nationalistic results of this friction in the setting, which also becomes a character of its own, buzzing with its own dialogue and repeating the phrase “…fact and rumor, fact and rumor.” Samarasan sinks us into the locale and the family bit by bit. The chatter of the first chapters gives the feel of a stage or musical. I am reminded of the street scene from the Broadway show Oliver wherein the vendors call out to advertise their wares. Layer by layer, we are immersed in the sights, sounds, and smells of Malaysia and of the Big House where the family tries to work out their fates to the best of their abilities. Although their house is indeed big, and the word can be only an adjective, the title of Big House implies the slavery of the mind that the war of words causes. And, it is reminiscent of the Oliver’s orphanage wherein the poor boy just wants more. Samarasan’s characters also just want more… more love, more understanding, more connection, more stability. And, just as in Broadway’s Oliver, when we hear the crystal voice of Oliver himself through the din of the other voices, bits and parts of Samarasan’s plot and storyline are revealed to us through each character’s perspective one at a time, and all fit together brilliantly by the end of the book.


But, unlike Oliver, there is no rich benefactor to act as savior. Each of Samarasan’s characters must pick up their own pieces, and in that action, there is some hope. That very American notion of picking one’s self up by one’s bootstraps is found here in a work that sounds foreign to many readers. After all, who lets so many characters speak at once? And who doesn’t tell a story from beginning to end in a linear fashion? For all its Malaysian construction and sensibility, the truths in this book are universal.


Tolstoy tells us that happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. However, there is more to the story. There is similarity in dysfunction as well, and Samarasan shows us that this is true. Readers can identify with traits of the characters (either in themselves or their loved ones) for all of us have known betrayal, doubt, aggression, and ugliness at the hands of another—often someone closest to us. Indeed, fans of Tolstoy or D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers will find much that is recognizable in Samarasan’s tale as through a detailed and skillfully woven story, she speaks to us all.



Forgiving the flawed and fallible: Larissa Kyzer on Leah Hager Cohen’s novel House Lights

House Lights, Leah Hager Cohen, WW Norton





In the opening pages of Leah Hager Cohen’s House Lights, Beatrice Fisher-Hart recalls a moment during her workday as a ‘historical interpreter’ at a restored Underground Railroad station. During a routine tour, a little boy asks Beatrice personal questions about herself, rather than about the character she is representing. “It threw me,” she recalls,

having him break the fourth wall, as they would have said in my acting class, having him crack everyone’s willing suspension of disbelief. It was as if someone had switched on the house lights in the middle of a dramatic performance, suddenly illuminating the larger reality in which the play was being staged.

While the metaphor that immediately presents itself in the passage is, of course, the analogy drawn between a theatrical performance and Real Life, House Lights’ strength as a novel lies in its ability to transcend this somewhat bland metaphorical framework and reach instead towards a surprisingly textured and subtle reflection on relationships, culpability, and one’s ability to forgive. Beatrice’s coming of age is intertwined inexorably not in her ability to take on a role and play her part. Rather, it becomes her central goal to be like the little boy in the above anecdote—to shatter the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ that defines her family life and history. To be, above all things, ‘an actor’—a force of action, an instigator. “My dream is to act, I had written,” she reflects mid-way through the novel, “and I believed I meant acting as in theater,”

The words sound different to me now, as I look back on who I was then, fast approaching my twentieth birthday…playing the same role I had performed all my life, and all the while so critically unable to act.


House Lights pivots around Beatrice’s discovery that her father, a noted psychologist and professor, has a history of sexually harassing his clients and students. Although information about his conduct has been carefully slanted and, more often than not, withheld from Beatrice (who meanwhile constructed an image of her father as a “beautifully, effortlessly moral” man), when one of his dissertation supervisees furnishes tape-recorded proof of his behavior, she is forced to reckon with not only her image of her parents, but also of herself. “I felt sullied by what I was learning about my father, about my mother’s complicity, and, worst of all, what felt like my own complicity, too,” she explains,

Not because I’d known; I hadn’t. Simply because I had loved him, and us, had believed in and been buttressed by my ready belief, the story of us Fisher-Harts being nobler and smarter and finer than average.

What Cohen emphasizes throughout the course of the novel is that complicity—in the form of either “ready belief” or a lack of action—is an offense on par with the transgressions that her characters spend the novel struggling to understand and overcome. House Lights reads as a repeating cycle of action met with inaction: a character is wronged by someone close to them, but then exacerbates and complicates the situation by refusing to face the problem head on, by even ignoring it all together.


Beatrice’s mother Sarah enacts this cycle most fully throughout House Lights. As a child, Sarah was practically abandoned by her mother, the “legendary actress” Margaret Fourcey, who sent her to live with relatives while Margaret pursued her career, remarried, and had another child. As an adult, Sarah cuts off almost all contact with her mother, stifling any possibility of resolution with her, even when Margaret attempts to reconcile. Beatrice herself replicates this cycle with her father, leaving home shortly after she finds out about the accusations made against him, and refusing to accept his apology when he finally does offer it.


Having made a concerted effort to do away with artifice and a mythologized sense of her family’s superiority, Beatrice cannot set these recognitions aside. Her point-of-view seems to constrict at the very moment that it expands, allowing her to see her parents for the flawed people that they are, but not able to forgive them their fallibility. But forgiveness, House Lights asserts, is not a matter of ignoring wrongs or pretending that time can ever truly eradicate certain emotional wounds. Rather, within the novel, forgiveness becomes the ability to be empathetic with those who have inflicted the most harm to you: “…This much is clear,” Beatrice says of her father, “it isn’t and never will be all right with me, the choices he’s made as a father. Which is different from hating him. Which does not preclude compassion.”