Crisp prose and humor keep novel moving
In her latest novel, Starting From Happy (ISBN 978-1-4391-02185, $24), Patricia Marx, author of Him Her Him Again The End of Him and a staff writer for the New Yorker, gives the reader an off-beat comedic look at relationships, work, marriage and children.
The story is simple enough. Wally Yez, a laboratory scientist, meets Imogene Gilfeather, a lingerie designer. Quickly, Wally becomes infatuated with Imogene, certain that she is the woman of his destiny. He breaks up with his long-time girlfriend and pursues Imogene, who is equally certain that she is happiest just as she is: devoted to her career, blessed by several friends, involved in an affair with a married man whose benign neglect pleases Imogene. Eventually, Imogene, charmed by Wally’s unrelenting pursuit, gives in to his romantic notions that the two of them should become a couple together.
What makes the first 150 pages of this book fun is Marx’s sense of the comic and the absurd. She has divided the book into several hundred short pieces, some no more than a word or two long, which she calls “chaplettes.” Her penchant for crisp, clean prose and her droll humor draw the reader back again and again into the story. Here, for example, is Chaplette 69:
“Pockets of drizzle in Iowa led to airport delays in Chicago, which led to lost luggage up and down the Eastern Seaboard, which led to Donald Charm’s canceling the lunch with Imogene. Imogene and Wally sat in the park that day eating hot dogs from the hot dog man.
“‘Can I ask you something?’ said Imogene. ‘Why do you have all those condiments?’
“‘I’ve been disappointed a lot in my life,” said Wally. He paused. ‘You’re not a condimephobic, are you?’”
Here is Wally in Chaplette 174 the day after first sleeping with Imogene:
“Here’s who else Wally told about Imogene: the woman at the curb waiting for the green light, the newspaper stand fellow, the counter clerk at the dry cleaner, the delivery boy, the guy who telephoned Wally but meant to telephone Wee La Fong (one digit away) to order pork dumplings, Derek.
“A dog in an elevator.
“Wally did not tell the lady squashed next to him on the bus who was reading her Bible as if she were cramming for the afterlife.”
The author also includes in the book rough pencil drawings, which add to the story and should make readers laugh. When Wally is asked by Elsie, his hairdresser, what he and Imogene had talked about on an early phone call that lasted until three in the morning, Wally answered: “I guess we talked mostly about how perfect she thought her life was and how overrated she thought relationships were and how I disagreed. We talked a little about curved ferrite rods, too.”
Marx then includes a pie chart titled “What Wally and Imogene Talked About” in which 67 percent of the conversation was devoted to iron and iron alloys, 25 percent to saying good-bye, and 8 percent to other things.
This humor stalls, however, and grows stale about the time Wally and Imogene become parents. Wally Jr. — called Bounce by his parents and friends — displays worrisome tendencies that border on psychopathic, while LinLin, a baby adopted from China, speaks her first word, “Whistleblower,” at the age of 27 weeks. The story then darkens as LinLin and Bounce grow older, causing their parents numerous trials. Imogene’s lingerie company never really takes off, and Wally becomes unhappy enough to contemplate an affair with Gwen, his lover of long ago. Worse, the humorous style and ironies begin to annoy the reader rather than entertain: to be told that Uxue, Bounce’s girlfriend, “ended up living in the Virgin Islands owing to an airline mix-up” sounds silly rather than funny.
The shine on Starting From Happy is also dulled by the juvenility of Wally and Imogene. They are reasonably happy — or at least amusing to the reader — when they are younger (and by younger I mean in their thirties), but as they grow into the age of adulthood they lose that luster. Their lives become gloomier; they look with regret at their children and their work. Marx appears to make the point that remaining an adolescent without children, without responsibilities, without duties to another human being, is preferable to becoming a grown-up. If this was her intent, then Marx has slanted her case so heavily toward perpetual adolescent that it ruins the ending of the book. If it was not her intent, then we are left with a story in which our sympathy for Wally and Imogene diminishes with each page we turn. They never truly become adults: they are stuck mentally in their adolescent past.
Although this change in tone and meaning make Starting From Happy a difficult book to recommend positively, the author’s wit and style nevertheless make the book better than its deficiencies.
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