On a Roadby Sam Frank
And Now You Can Go
Vendela Vida’s debut novel, And Now You Can Go, begins in the past tense, a memory. But in the second paragraph, grammar changes, anticipating trauma: "The trees were tall, and, by December, without birds. In my mind, the story is always in the present, always starting at 2:15." The narrator, Columbia grad student Ellis, is threatened at gunpoint—not a mugging, but a murder-suicide. She recites poetry to her assailant; he is moved, and moves off at a run. As throughout, the symbolism thuds literalist: she scares up apparitional faces in the crowd and roads less traveled. (Later, a mention of Plath, a head-in-oven.) A scene that sleights for magical quotidianism is instead implausible, telegraphed. The basic error—mistaking uncertain uninflection for realism and its quavers—persists.
We soon learn that at the wet, black crossroads is she, not he. As the story is structured around trauma, so too the plotting and her voice. The traumatic scene is seven pages long; thereafter, the action bumps in flat-fast paragraph or page-long sections, arranged chronologically. She moves on, but changed, perspicacious, and nervous; her language dimestore minimalism, with some straying whimsy ("I take a shower and wash my hair onetwothreefourfive—five times"; "I pass signs that say ‘Walk! Philadelphia’ everywhere I go. Exclamation points, I think, are so misused!") and literariness all astilt ("She surpassed me in height when she was twelve"; "Blood, there was a smattering of it, and it was over"). Sections end in ambiguous uptick, as if travestying the New Yorker story, one implausible plausibility after another: "I lose my bets, every single one of them." "There is no such thing as gravity, I pretend, no such thing as sleep." O Life!
There are occasional past-tense pre-trauma flashbacks, to other traumas: temporary abandonment by father, break-up with ex-boyfriend—couched in an inverse grammatical move to the book’s first, parallels placed. No, I misstate. There are no purely traumatic events; all, including the original, are granted closure. That is, there’s no particular drama here, nothing to be reclaimed in time and by structure. Certainly, Ellis isn’t herself after the incident, and performs random acts of cuteness and horror that match my DSM’s definition of PTSD: she cuts her hair in a mullet, gets her eyelashes done, is overcome by garlic odor. But we know the father’s returned, the boyfriend’s dumped, the mugger’s serenaded. We wait, perhaps, for the remembered homecoming, the bad blood, the capture. But we already know how this eternal recurrence rounds itself out: things, even bad things, end as neatly as they begin. And they end early. On page 23, she’s saying, "It took a day, but I am unvictimable, I am unstoppable." By page 33, she’s found herself, and how! "I get annoyed trying to explain the painting to her. Rules seem to have gotten me nowhere, so I decide to no longer follow any of them." Thirty-four pages from book’s end, even her emotions are fast, pretty, and unreconstructed Christian: "My desire for life is so strong, it’s Cassius Clay." She dates a few men, mildly poetic souls given to rubbing her flappy belly, their "fingers spreading out like a starfish." They are assigned epithets: the ROTC boy, the representative of the world. Old boyfriends with names, Tom, Nick, Jason, are handled summarily.
There is a dalliance with authentic natives (poverty, eye problems, a knack for "gesturing soulfully"). Luckily, though she doesn’t speak the language, she does have a magic ear: she can tell that one native’s "English is passable; her Philippine dialect obscure." But unluckily for this citizen of the world, and for her fellow travelers, her English dialect is obscure. Part two ends: "She flips down the lips of the box. The roll of packing tape makes a squealing sound as she gives it one long pull. Using her teeth— something she told us to never do— she severs the tape from the roll and seals the box." Is there anything to this but closure and a split infinitive? This is not economical writing. It is drab. It is undetailed and slack and imprecise: flips for folds? lips for flaps? makes a squealing sound for squeals? Using my fingers, I scratch my head and write this sentence.
Weakness posing as strength. The shortest scene in a novel of short scenes is a microcosm:
"Freddie and my father take us to the airport. On the way there, my mother asks me four times if I have my passport.
‘Stop hassling her,’ Freddie says. ‘Are you sure you have yours?’
We turn around to get my mother’s passport."
Fast-and-flat, a gently ironic incident that might happen to you too, hinting at family resemblances, querying whether the problem lies in Ellis or in the world around her— all in 43 words. Or: a paragraph as vapid and unstylish and cutesy as it reads; "there is in fact no there there. Is there any there anywhere here?"
The biographical business, left unexplored: Vida was too a grad student at Columbia, is married to Dave Eggers, is an editor at The Believer. Unexplored, and one last quote: "Each time a new portrait is projected I wonder, On a scale of one to ten, how much do the people in the painting resemble what they looked like in real life? / There’s no way of knowing." I wonder, How much does Ellis, perky-dreary and subliterate, resemble Vida? "There’s no way of knowing."
Sam Frank is a writer whose work has appeared in the Chicago Reader and Dusted Magazine. He is working on a tetralogy.