A delightfully strange, unflinchingly surreal novel that brings to mind Kafka and Hrabal. When a narcissistic government worker named Bjorn discovers a secret room, his co-workers, who do not believe the room exists, ostracize him. While in the room, however, Bjorn does his best work, making himself indispensable. The co-workers who despise him come to resentfully rely on him to keep their entire department relevant. A slim, tricky, maddeningly amusing novel that leaves many questions unanswered. Of all the books I’ve read this year, this is the one that most often comes to mind at random moments.
There Must Be Some Mistake, by Frederick Barthelme
Forgetful Bay reminds me a lot of the Gulf Coast, where I grew up. No one does Gulf Coast torpor–the heat and humidity and wrenching boredom of it–quite like Barthelme. Wallace Webster lives a quiet life, observing the strange goings-on and frequent deaths in this backwater community with a sharp eye and quick wit. I was reminded of the short story “The School,” by Barthelme’s brother Donald, in which a series of small animals dies, leaving a group of innocent children wondering, “Is death that which gives meaning to life?” As with “The School,” the crimes that befall Forgetful Bay become increasingly difficult to ignore.
Barthelme draws Webster’s relationships with the various women in his life–daughter, co-worker, and occasional lover–with tenderness and complexity. A wonderful novel by one of my favorite writers, whose work proves, again and again, that you don’t need a lot of pages to cover a whole lot of emotional ground.
If, like me, you were raised on a steady diet of Rapture sermons, you’ll find much to relate to in Coming of Age at the End of Days, the darkly entertaining novel of faith gone awry by Alice LaPlante, the bestselling author of Circle of Wives.
Sixteen year old Anna, unpopular at school and searching for something to hold on to, falls under the spell of the Goldshmidts. The Goldshmidt parents and their teenaged son, Lars, belong to a cult whose mission is to speed up the coming of the Tribulation–the dark period of hell on earth that fundamentalist Christians believe will follow the second coming of Christ. When she is suddenly orphaned, Anna becomes ever more obsessed with the Tribulation and her role in making it happen.
The cult’s mission centers on the breeding of pure red heifers; Orthodox Judaism holds that Jews must be purified by the ashes of a red heifer in order to rebuild the Third Temple. Evangelical Christians have long been on this bandwagon, as they believe that the rebuilding of the Third Temple is a prerequisite for the coming of Christ. This is great stuff, and it’s not even made up. For a fascinating, in-depth explanation of the red heifer mythology and a profile of the Mississippi preacher named Clyde Lott and the Orthodox Rabbi who are in cahoots to breed cattle to get things rolling, read the excellent PBS Frontline report, Forcing the End: Why Do a Pentecostal Preacher from Mississippi and an Orthodox Rabbi from Jerusalem Believe That a Red Heifer Can Bring Change?
In the background of LaPlante’s novel is a far-away figure who is working to breed the heifers–a character who seems to be based to large extent on Lott. For readers who didn’t grow up with the terrifying Left Behind series (we watched them at church lock-ins) and with the Rapture in the background as a constant threat, LaPlante’s novel may seem delightfully far-fetched. As someone who believed all this stuff hook, line, and sinker until I left high school, it’s fun to read it as an adult, when I am able to see it as a dark fairy tale instead of a terrifying inevitability.
Anna is an interesting character, and I easily found myself rooting for her. The only bit that didn’t quite ring true was Anna’s initial fascination with Lars. He utters a few words to her at a bus stop, and she falls instantly under his spell. I would have liked to see her more gradually sucked in; a deeper exploration of why she fell for Lars’s story, and for and Lars’s outsized view of his own elevated place in the world, would have made for a richer character.
What I find most interesting about the Tribulation is its potential to become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Evangelical American presidents have made monumentally dangerous decisions based upon the belief that it is their duty to move the world in the direction of the Second Coming. As I write this, ISIS too is attempting to bring on the Apocalypse. With three distinctly different groups–evangelical Christians, Islamic extremists, and Orthodox Jews–moving toward three very different versions of the end of days, the Tribulation, which Evangelical Christian envision as hell on earth, may very well come to pass.
In Coming of Age at the End of Days, LaPlante has crafted a darkly entertaining and often enlightening cautionary tale about what happens when youth and faith collide.
How the novel Golden State came to be. Read the Q&A.
Random House Reader’s Circle: Why did you decide to set the novel against the backdrop of a vote for secession?
Michelle Richmond: I am fascinated by the fact that so often things that seem impossible are actually very much within the realm of possibility. Every day in the news, there’s something else that completely explodes our expectations. Tom’s radio show, Anything Is Possible, is a tribute to that notion, and I hope this novel is a tribute to that notion as well. Personally, to be clear, I don’t think that California should or will go anywhere, but there’s been so much secession talk on the fringes for years, from states as diverse as New York, Texas, Colorado, and California, that it seemed worth exploring what would happen if the concept of secession moved from the outermost fringes to the mainstream. I also am interested in the way characters live out their lives against the backdrop of the larger world, which is what every one of us does, every day. Only days after moving to California, I experienced my first tremor. I’d been in hurricanes and tornadoes, but this was the first time I’d felt the ground move beneath my feet. It sent a powerful message: that stability is an illusion, and that we have no way of knowing when everything is going to change. Fifteen years have passed since I felt that first tremor, and I’ve felt hundreds of them since then. I am accustomed to them, but I don’t imagine I’ll ever be immune: every time the house moves—-whether it’s a quick jolt or a slow roll—-I’m reminded that we live on a fault line. To me, this seems like an apt metaphor for marriage in particular and for life in general.
RHRC: In Golden State, as in The Year of Fog, the couple is suffering from the loss of a child. Can you talk a bit about this theme and why you are drawn to it?
MR: The worst thing I could imagine as a child was being separated from my parents. Now that I am an adult, I see this fear of separation from the other side. As a child, you fear the loss of protection, but as an adult, you fear the inability to protect a child who is in your care. In my mind, Julie is deeply in love with Tom, and always will be. But there is something about the love for a child that is very different and more fierce than romantic love—-I believe it must have something to do with the need to care for those who are incapable of caring for themselves.
RHRC: You have said in the past that you never outline, and that you don’t know where a book is going when you begin. How much did you know about this story when you began writing it?
MR: Well, I knew from the start that it would be the story of a marriage. I am always intrigued by what holds a couple together, and by what it takes to sever the bonds that, at some point, were strong enough to justify a vow of lifelong commitment. For Julie and Tom, there is this deep love and passion and mutual respect that have kept them together for so long, but things happen, things largely beyond their control, to threaten that love. Will the center hold? That was the question I began with, and I had no idea when I started writing what the answer would be. But it was important to me that Julie and Tom both be characters as decent as they were flawed. I also knew, when I began writing the novel, that three relationships would be central to the novel: the marriage, Julie’s relationship with her sister, and the couple’s relationship to the lost child. It was only much later—-years into the writing of the book—-that Dennis became a strong force. He sort of took me by surprise and added a new element to the novel. This is where the author–editor relationship comes into play; in this case, my editor noticed a character that had been lurking fairly quietly on the sidelines and basically said, “What’s the deal with this guy?” It was a good question, one that forced me to look at the story from an entirely different angle. When I began exploring Dennis’s role in Julie’s life, I thought about all of the relationships we enter into sort of blindly over the course of our adult lives. And I thought about how much of ourselves we make known to people, and how easily we sometimes trust others with our deepest secrets and fears. What interested me about Dennis were the long–term repercussions of that trust.
RHRC: There’s a lot of music in your book. Do you listen to music when you write?
MR: I’ll sometimes listen to instrumentals, but I never listen to music with lyrics while I’m writing. It gets in my head. When I’m not sitting down writing, though, there’s always music in our house. My husband used to DJ at UCLA when he was in college, and he’s always on the lookout for new acts, or new albums by people you haven’t heard of in twenty years. In our house, I buy the books and he buys the albums, and then we share.
RHRC: How did you research this book?
MR: Well, I spent a lot of time driving, walking, and taking the bus up and down California Street! Most people in San Francisco never use the cable cars, and when I started writing this novel, I’d been living in San Francisco for years but hadn’t ridden a cable car since I was there on a family vacation when I was thirteen. Sometimes, some of the research happens before the idea of the book ever takes hold, and that was the case with this novel. At the time I began writing it, my little boy attended the preschool on the campus of the Veterans Administration Hospital in San Francisco. It’s this amazingly beautiful place, and I felt so fortunate to drop him off there every day. But I was also aware that the hospital served a population of veterans who had seen the very worst of war. This was also at a time when the patient population was beginning to change, and when many veterans were coming home with terrible wounds that would not have been survivable in previous wars. A general internist at the hospital generously allowed me to shadow him and his residents. I took copious notes, but it goes without saying that much of what I witnessed on rounds and in the lectures went over my layperson’s head. When it comes to the actual medical terminology of the book, I should emphasize that any failures in logic or procedure are, of course, entirely my own! I also read a lot of first–person accounts by veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and talked with friends in the military. We expect so much from our service members, and when they come home, I think we civilians sometimes feel awkward around them. There is this sense of not knowing quite what to say, of being curious but afraid to ask questions that would be intrusive or would force them to recount what they’ve been through. I tried to capture that in the relationship between Julie and her sister: Julie knows that Heather has been through a great deal, but she also knows that it’s something she will never entirely be able to understand.
RHRC: If you hadn’t become an author, what career would you have pursued?
MR: Well, I am endlessly fascinated by outer space. I spend a lot of time reading about newly discovered planets and the Martian atmosphere. I do weird things like attend the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) conference and stay in the hotel with all the Artificial Intelligence people just to soak up the conversation. I ask my son at least once a month, “Honey, do you think you might like to be an astronaut?” I’ve made my husband sit through the planetarium show at the California Academy of Sciences more times than I care to admit, and it has never once failed to move me to tears. So, I would love to say that I would have become a physicist had I not become a writer, but that simply would not have been possible. We are not always given the brains that we would choose. I am very, very happy to be a writer, and I am keenly aware that my gray matter supports the writing life quite well but would not be particularly well suited for a life observing the unknown universe. I must stick, then, with the known universe, and spend a lot of time staring at the stars.
If you’ve been following this blog, you know that I primarily write about writing, publishing, and literature. But my secret passion is for design, and I’ll confess that I spend countless hours tracking down great designs from high to low. I especially love small furniture and design shops, where the makers put their personal stamp on every piece. This week, I’m focusing on small makers of beautiful modern furniture.
On Organic Modern’s website, I found all sorts of amazing pieces. Here’s the one I’m dreaming of, modern shelves in a mix of walnut and candyesqe brights. At 94.5″ wide, these gorgeous shelves won’t fit against any wall in my house, but if they would, I’d have to tie myself to a chair to avoid clicking the buy button.
I’m also in love with this modern sofa, made of a walnut frame with fabric upholstery and seat back. The extension rising up out of the back makes it look as though the sofa could up and fly away. This is a statement piece, unlike any sofa I’ve ever seen. In my home, we’re blessed with floor-to-celing windows that I’d be crazy to cover, so we keep our seating low profile in order not to obstruct the views. But if you have a central spot in your home crying out for both a practical sofa and a conversation-inducing statement piece, here’s your solution.
Our final item is this beautiful credenza with a walnut frame. This is Organic Modernism’s take on a sophisticated mid century modern classic. At $2,995, it’s in the same price range as credenzas by the big chain stores.