April 15, 2013

Book Review: "Woke Up Lonely" by Fiona Maazel

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Woke Up Lonely, by Fiona Maazel

Woke Up Lonely
By Fiona Maazel
Graywolf Press
Reviewed by Travis Fortney

As the title would suggest, Fiona Maazel's second novel--after 2008's Last Last Chance--is concerned with loneliness. In its pages, we meet Thurlow Dan, who has founded a cult called the Helix to solve the problem of loneliness. It isn't working particularly well for him, and in the course of the novel he will go to desperate extremes to cure himself of this affliction once and for all. One of the people he is lonely for is his ex-wife Esme, an FBI agent and the leader of the team who is assigned to track him. Esme is lonely for him in return. Their daughter is lonely for her missing father, her workaholic mother, and her recently dead grandparents. The other FBI agents who Esme brings onto her team are all lonely, too. Anne-Janet has a sick mother and cancer to deal with, and has never had a serious boyfriend. Ned dresses up as a Stormtrooper and visits internet chat rooms. Bruce is a misunderstood documentary filmmaker. Olgo is lonely because his wife has run off and joined the Helix.

Maazel sums up what exactly the Helix is about midway through: "..everywhere and all the time, people are crying out for each other..." Thurlow says to a group of supporters, "and when you look back on your life you'll see it's true: woke up lonely, and the missing were on your lips." It's a nice thought, and lyrically expressed, but I have to admit that the premise of a movement founded to "cure loneliness in the twenty-first century" left me a bit confused.

I didn't understand why Thurlow had a greater claim as an authority on the kind of loneliness specific to our current age than anyone else, especially since his loneliness is mostly a direct result of his alienation from his wife and child, and he founded the Helix before he and Esme ever met. I wasn't sure what this twenty-first century loneliness looks like to Ms. Maazel. I know she might assume it's obvious--something to do with communications technology, greater population density, a higher divorce rate, a move to more urban areas--but these are just guesses, because I am not an expert on the subject. One problem with Woke Up Lonely is that Thurlow Dan doesn't appear to be an expert on the subject either--I don't think he needed to be for this novel to be successful, but I would like to have known what got him started down this path in the first place. It felt to me like Ms. Maazel didn't want to state the obvious reasons why people today are especially lonely because to do so would have made the book less unique, but she has such a gift for observation that I wished she had given it a try. I'm sure that she could have made Thurlow's loneliness both universal and unprecedented, and it would have added a lot to the novel if his character was more than a bumbling sad sack (albeit a very funny one).

Last week in this review I wrote that there is a certain kind of modern novel where the male protagonist could always be played by Steve Carrel in the movie version. Since Woke Up Lonely is a book in the maximalist tradition, we have four male characters, all of whom are vying for maximum face time. And all four of them could be played by different versions of Steve Carrel. Suffice to say, every male character in this book is nice enough, fairly easygoing, easy to laugh at, kind of sad, and basically average.

To be fair though, Ms. Maazel saves her best character work here for Esme, whose character I thought embodied the conflicts at her core very nicely. Indeed, Woke Up Lonely could be read as a post-feminist novel where the most compelling conflict is the career vs. family struggle that's going on within Esme. She initially rejects Thurlow, then gets pregnant with their child, leaves him, reunites with him, marries him (although this decision is motivated by the opportunity for career advancement), finally falls in love with him, leaves him again, pawns her child off on her parents, adopts a foster child because she misses her own child, secretly follows her ex-husband's movements, never really stops loving him, struggles to connect with her estranged daughter, and eventually decides that family is the most important thing. I suppose Thurlow and Esme could even be read as allegorical to a great many twenty-first century relationships, where the world is full of background noise, careers are all consuming, it's easy to know everything about a person without ever interacting in the flesh, and true connection can be difficult.

But, again, that plot arc isn't fully developed, and to read the novel that way is a bit of stretch. What we have instead is a complex web of stories laid over the top of each other, told in a way that seems to be intentionally confusing. A large section of the novel is told on a series of sixty or so note cards. Another large section involves sometimes confusing switches from first to third person when we are in the same character's point of view. Much of the story takes place in North Korea, and for whatever reason these sections seem a bit stale. Maybe this is due to all of the escalating talk about the new North Korean regime recently, maybe it's due to the recent Saturday Night Live skits, or maybe it's the appearance of The Orphan Master's Son last year. It might also be that the the scene about North Korea Ms. Maazel seems intent on making her big emotional reveal (that Esme is posing as Kim Jong-il while Thurlow is meeting with him) falls flat, since Thurlow never believed he was meeting with the real Kim Jong-il in the first place, and we already know Esme has a proclivity for disguise.

In another layer on top of all this, we have the stories of the members of Esme's team, all of which are told in some detail. It doesn't help that despite all the ingenuity on the surface, the team's stories are fairly conventional. Anne-Janet's story is about cancer, Bruce's is about pregnancy, Ned's is about adoption, and Olgo's is about infidelity. The team's stories provide a nice way for Maazel to clarify her theme and showcase her humor early on, but its a bit puzzling when she abandons Thurlow and Esme at the end of the book to wrap up the story of each individual team member instead of providing real resolution for our two protagonists.

This book reminded me of Ryan Boudinot's Blueprints of the Afterlife, which was unique, funny and entertaining, and which I also had trouble connecting to on an emotional level. Like Boudinot's novel, Woke Up Lonely is filled to the point of bursting with spot-on observations and laugh-out-loud funny lines, but all of these wonderful parts don't necessarily add up to a satisfying whole. Still, it's well worth picking up Woke Up Lonely, giving it a read, and discovering the good humor and great fun to be had in its pages for yourself.

Out of 10: 8

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Filed by Travis Fortney at 12:16 PM, April 15, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews | Travis Fortney |