Monday, November 14, 2011

Book Review: A Meaning for Wife

My good friend and poet colleague Mark Yakich just published his first novel, A Meaning for Wife. Mark told me about this novel when we first met, at which point it was still forming in notes on the back of Mark's hands (sometimes both of them, well up onto his forearms). The novel begins and ends on airport taxiways, just before the two flights that bookend the story—so I had an obvious point of interest. Then I read a galley of the novel when it was picked up by the savvy independent publisher, Ig.

It seems to me as though this novel is taking up David Foster Wallace's anticipation of a new kind of U.S. fiction. In his 1993 essay "E Unibus Pluram: Television and U.S. Fiction," Wallace writes:
The next real literary "rebels" in this country might well emerge as some weird bunch of "anti-rebels," born oglers who dare somehow to back away from ironic watching, who have the childish gall actually to endorse and instantiate single-entendre values. Who treat old untrendy human troubles and emotions in U.S. life with reverence and conviction. Who eschew self-consciousness and fatigue. These anti-rebels would be outdated, of course, before they even started. Too sincere. Clearly repressed. Backward, quaint, naive, anachronistic. Maybe that'll be the point, why they'll be the next real rebels. Real rebels, as far as I can tell, risk things. Risk disapproval.
A Meaning for Wife functions in precisely these ways. What follows is a version of the review I posted on Amazon:


When I first read A Meaning for Wife it reminded me of the stories told in the films Garden State and Grosse Pointe Blank. Like these two movies, Yakich's novel has a similar theme of existential searching within the suburban banalities of late American life. Specifically, "A Meaning for Wife" explores the psycho-geography of Algonquin, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), under the pretense of a 20th high school reunion, itself cast in the dark shadow of the sudden death of our main character's wife.

I was recently teaching Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises in a 20th-century American fiction course when I realized that A Meaning for Wife is actually participating in a longer lineage of American narratives of disillusionment and irony—irony so deep that "depth" isn't even the right way to describe it. The irony of this kind of fiction is through and through: there is no surface of sincerity that escapes its opposite meaning, and so you can never quite be certain how to take things. The characters who are rendered pathetic are in fact the most stable; the crazy ones utter startling truths from time to time; and home is both safe and claustrophobic for our main characters.

This constant uncertainty of meaning stems from the fact that the main characters of these narratives have lost something significant (Jake Barnes's "accident"; the sudden death of one's lover in A Meaning for Wife), and everything experienced thereafter is distorted and distended, marked by this loss. And neither does the surrounding world stand out as full or fully present: the world too becomes exposed as riddled with lack—even when it is apparently charged with excess. (One might consider Walker Percy's The Moviegoer as another text in this genre, and also Lydia Davis's Varieties of Disturbance.)

The main character of A Meaning for Wife is at turns humble and arrogant, despicable and admirable, hilarious and morose, wise and absurd. His witticisms often morph into lyrical mush over the course of a paragraph, and his mature (and indeed 'experienced', in the Blakean sense) perspective is continually undermined by the sniveling, "squawking" toddler son Owen who accompanies our main character like a parodic Yoda in the backseat of the grandparents' "dull beige sedan."

A Meaning for Wife is peppered with brilliant turns of phrases on every page, like a spontaneous decision to leave the past behind and drive all the way to California, an American Western trope cut short by the realization that Owen will doubtless get hungry and therefore they'll "never make it farther than the Mississippi." Or this observation, as the reunited high school chums drink their way through giddy (if at times awkward) conversation: "Swallowing—isn't it simply another way of marking time?"

The genius of this novel is that it bumbles along on a journey that is always just on the brink of happening, right up to the final sentence—while at the same time, the narrative keeps us wondering if in fact the very concept of 'the journey' is located irrevocably and maddeningly in the past, even as we (must) hurl ourselves into a future to come.