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Wednesday, February 19, 2014


This Is Not an Accident: Stories and a Novella, by April Wilder
NY: Viking, 2014
Hardcover, $26.95

What would you do if you were stood up for a date after driving from Wisconsin to Iowa City to meet someone you’d met through an online service? Would you get blotto and not remember the drive home the next day? Would you then begin to obsess over the possibility that you could have killed someone on the road and not remembered the event? And would you then begin compulsively repeating the Wisconsin-Iowa round trip, searching along the way for signs that would tell you what might have happened on the drive home you don’t remember? What about the speeding tickets, the driving class, the traffic court? How would you handle these situations?

Whatever answers you came up with to those questions, you can throw them in the wastebasket, because you are not Kat, the protagonist in the title story of Wilder’s collection.

Wilder’s cast of characters forms an almost coherent group of incoherent lives. Kat, a cartoonist, by virtue of her work, exhibits some direction and drive; it’s just that her on/off switch is triggered more by chance than decision. But Kat is likable. Characters in the other stories are not always as sympathetic. That is, I liked Kat and found her sympathetic, but in part because she reminded me of a dear friend, whose responses are never like those of anyone else I know. More generally, one of the things that kept me going with this book was the varied and even wild responses of the characters in the stories and the bizarre situations they created by responding in surprising ways to earlier unexpected situations they encountered.

What’s around the next corner? What will the new day bring? Is everything an accident?

Another standout feature of Wilder’s fiction is her gift for original simile and generalization to capture perfectly the feel of a moment, a gesture, or an appearance. Of the young man named Odd (I couldn’t help thinking, weren’t they all?), Wilder writes “He was one of those guys who can’t grow a real beard and so shaves every day to hide the places where no hair grows.”  In another story, Lauren thinks of her friend Wahl, trying to decide if he is attractive,
The veganism figured in. He burped like an opera singer holding a note, as if to brag that his weren’t regular burps but special vegan ones.
There are also flashes of commonsense wisdom when you least expect it, as when Kat’s sister, who works as a mermaid, performing underwater moves in a tank for the drinkers on the other side of the bar, tries once again to set her straight:
... Around Angel’s eyes the skin gathered, a look similar to the one she got when Kat explained how someone had wronged her, and Angel would cut her off and say, “Okay, wait a minute: so you seem to be proceeding under the assumption that other people are telling the truth. Is that right? Is that your plan for getting through life?” And Kat would be left making minnowy gaping motions with her mouth.
The last story before the closing novella takes an unusual form. By the third item on the questionnaire that is titled “Creative Writing Instructor Evaluation Form,” we know it’s headed down a strange road. Will there be a crash?

Then comes the novella. In “You’re That Guy,” we meet Eckhart at 3 a.m. in a car in Utah with a friend. Gradually, in bits and pieces, we learn what preceded their drive across the desert, and eventually we find ourselves with Eckhart more or less settled down, and more or less falling in love with a Mormon girl (or at least a former Mormon, a girl who was raised Mormon), but by that point any connection to the malaise into which Eckhart had fallen before Russ rescued him seems tangential at best. Then comes an accidental encounter with a mentally ill man in a 7-Eleven, changing the story’s trajectory once more.
As Eckhart crouched to chain up Clyde, he noticed the people in line inside the store drop their eyes as the guy passed, making exaggerated room like you would for someone carrying a live marlin.
It isn’t a marlin. The guy is carrying a doll, dressed in child’s clothes, a doll he treats as a live baby and that other people around him, so as not to disturb whatever delicate equilibrium the doll allows him, also treat and speak of as a child.

I had a hard time with “You’re That Guy.” As the vegetative claustrophobia of the early parts of the novella gave way to an almost equally pointless, claustrophobic Utah social scene, all I wanted for page after page was to escape the main character’s life. Another friend of mine often recommends to me depressing or violent serious movies that she describes as “hard to watch.” If “You’re That Guy” were a movie, I’m sure I would find it hard to watch. But when I reached the last sentence – what can I say? – I was glad I’d stuck with it. Life must be lived forwards but can only be understood backwards, as Kierkegaard noted. That’s pretty much how I felt in retrospect about this novella.

“She didn’t make an active, conscious decision as far as she could recall.” That was Kat, trying to chart after the fact her unplanned replay of the Wisconsin-Iowa expressway drive, but it could just as well be said of all the characters in This Is Not an Accident at one point or another. Oh, these people plan to a certain extent, of course. They decide some things. Lauren plans a European vacation with Wahl and agrees to three days in Denmark. She even agrees to staying in hostels, although she would prefer more privacy, because that’s the way Wahl can afford the trip, and she will be dependent on his language skills and travel confidence. They’re not lovers, so how much can go wrong? The unplanned, the unexpected, default mode in place of decision, or a decision made under pressure affect the course of even the conservative and successful lives.

My guess is that the main audience for Wilder’s fiction will be the 25-50 crowd, old enough to be sophisticated, young enough to be hip, postmodern enough to be patient when the fictional lives get “hard to watch.” Wilder is a gifted writer. This is her first book. Who knows where she’ll go next? I would not dare to hazard a guess!

And now a surprise: the publisher is offering a giveaway of April Wilder’s This Is Not An Accident, and all you have to do is leave a comment here to say why you’re interested in reading the book, and the winner’s name will be drawn at random. Thank you – and good luck!


Walt said...

Interesting review, Pamela, of what sounds like an interesting book. And though neither Marjorie nor I technically fit into the age range you gave, I think we're still hip enough to enjoy something like this (especially given our enjoyment of some of our late-night music events during NXNP last summer).

-- Walt

P. J. Grath said...

I agree, Walt. You guys are way hipper than any room I'm in!

Marilyn said...

When an author digs deeper into the lives of her characters and her imagination is such that these people are the kind you'd like to-- maybe not meet-- but certainly watch from a nearby perch to see what they'll do next, that's an author who, I think, will capture my interest and whose book I'd like to try reading.

P. J. Grath said...

Your hat's in the ring now, too, Marilyn.

Northport muse said...

As always, I found your review most interesting, though I'm guessing this falls into the "hard to watch" category for me as well. What catches my eye particularly is the format of the book.. it seems many authors are playing with the stories plus novella structure.

P. J. Grath said...

Barbara, another book I read not long ago was Sena Jeter Naslund's THE DISOBEDIENCE OF WATER, which is "stories and novellas," although the individual pieces are not labeled one or the other. In the Wilder book, it was only the novella that I found "hard to watch" and not because of graphic violence or anything like that but just what struck me as the deadly tedium of the main character's existence. As I say, though, when I got to the end it all made sense and I was glad I hadn't given up.

Gerry said...

I would like to read the Wilder book because (1) I'm a fool for first books (2) my on/off switch, like Kat's, "is triggered more by chance than decision" and (3) I'm always curious about books that inspire an actual effort by a publisher. That used to happen more often. Good for Viking.

P. J. Grath said...

Well, this is somewhat bizarre. I put four names in a hat (literally) and had a visiting friend pick, and Barbara's name came up. But she thought this would be a metaphorical "hard to watch" book. Barbara, are you up for the free copy? You won it fair and square!