BY ROB CLINE
As one year draws to a close and another begins, it seems appropriate to highlight three gems from the many books that crossed my bedside table in 2006.
Chapter twelve of Brian Morton’s Breakable You is devastating. Though it flows directly out of the preceding chapter, it could easily stand alone as a gem of a short story. In twelve pages, Morton brilliantly portrays the love of a father for his gravely ill baby and the ways that love and illness can devastate a family. It’s flawless work and would more than justify the rest of the novel even if the book as a whole weren’t particularly good.
But Breakable You is exceptionally good. The novel relates the story of ambitious, preening novelist Adam Weller—a man with an opportunity to redefine his legacy at the expense of a dead friend—and his disillusioned ex-wife Eleanor, as well as their emotionally fragile daughter Maud and her new lover Samir. Each player is struggling to maintain or define his or her place in the world in the face of disappointment and despair.
Morton explores the damaged lives of his characters with skill. He walks right up to the line of gimmickry in parallel chapters featuring Maud and Samir’s disparate perspectives on the same encounters, but never crosses it. While the book’s plot covers some familiar ground, Morton’s voice and perspective are clearly his own. He is unafraid to break his readers’ hearts and is an unblinking realist.
Even so, Breakable You is an oddly comforting book. And the twelfth chapter, though devastatingly sad, is not to be missed.
Peter Orner, a graduate of the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is a master of moments. His first novel, The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, is divided into 154 chapters, most of which are very brief. Each is a crystalline image contributing to Orner’s compelling portrait of a remote school in Namibia.
The eponymous freedom fighter returns to the school after a lengthy absence with a son in tow. She is lusted after, scorned, and admired by the motley assortment of characters who teach and live at the school. She becomes the lover of narrator Larry Kaplanski, a volunteer from Ohio whose very presence in Namibia is something of an enigma to him and those around him. Their physical intimacy is contrasted with their makeshift efforts to understand one another across a host of barriers.
The arc of the love affair gives shape to the book’s plot, but The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo isn’t particularly plot-driven. Rather, each brief moment elucidates the characters—several of whom are indelibly rendered—and the barren landscape they inhabit. Orner’s Namibia is a tactile locale for the reader, as surely a key character as Mavala herself.
The novel is devoid of missteps, even as Orner occasionally shifts perspectives and introduces narrative styles that vary from Larry’s storytelling. The novel’s unique structure never overwhelms nor detracts from the sparse story, which is by turns funny and tragic. Instead, Orner’s less-is-more technique creates a surprisingly rich and rewarding read.
Kevin Brockmeier’s The Brief History of the Dead is staggering. The graduate of the UI Writers’ Workshop sets himself an unbelievably difficult task—writing about the afterlife in an original, believable way—and then accomplishes it with style. Meanwhile, he constructs a harrowing tale of a woman struggling to survive in Antarctica while coming to terms with the increasing likelihood that she is the last living human anywhere in the world.
Brockmeier explores his two linked storylines with an admirable eye for detail, creating an afterworld governed by rules both familiar and strange as well as an Antarctic landscape that is vivid and frightening. He populates (albeit necessarily lightly) both worlds with characters whose fates the reader quickly becomes invested in, and he raises the stakes by making the fates of the characters key to the fates of their very worlds.
At the book’s center is Laura Byrd, the woman stranded in Antarctica whose efforts to survive are key to the characters who have already died. Brockmeier builds Laura’s story from both sides of the life/death divide, giving the reader a rich and moving portrait of his heroine.
The plot hinges on a pandemic that wipes out populations worldwide and has a corresponding effect on the population of the City, the community in which the dead find themselves after passing away. A horrifyingly plausible germ-distribution device is telegraphed fairly early in the book, but the missing jolt of surprise is a small disappointment in a novel that is otherwise flawlessly constructed.