FICTION: It Was Better Not to Be Born at All
(OPEN CITY, 2009)
In her first novel, Living Room, Rachel Sherman singles out the most repulsive of her characters’ experiences: diarrhea, oral sex on a flaccid old penis, suicide flashbacks, screaming matches, and alcohol poisoning. These are experiences which could mark a book as gritty or realistic, but because the characters living them feel unexplored, the ugliness reads as false and gratuitous.
Told in 45 chapters, each one a vignette written in limited third-person from one of three female perspectives, Living Room never gets motivated, despite tragic circumstances, transformative moments, and potentially moving action. Recording a short, tumultuous period in the lives of a Long Island mother-in-law, mother and daughter, the narrative voice—monotonous, depressed, distant—renders a novel which succumbs to its unhappy characters, each of whom never quite takes shape.
Fifteen-year-old Abby, Abby’s mother Livia, and Livia’s mother-in-law, Headie, are all miserable, respectively struggling to navigate their way through adolescence, middle age, and the end of life. Abby is the novel’s strongest character, a disenchanted teenage girl lost in the ambiguities and confusion of being young and guideless. Abby’s emotional troubles are subtly communicated, a tribute to Sherman’s skill in expressing teenage angst, so often internalized. When we meet Abby, she has just met and befriended the more-attractive, more-popular, more-experienced Jenna, and the typical teenage-society hierarchy is established.
Livia’s problems are of a different age group. Addicted to junk food, she feels unloved and unlovable, her libido is nonexistent, and she lives in ignorance of her emotional responsibility to Abby. Headie is even more hopeless; having outlasted two husbands, she lives alone with only her hallucinations (of people dancing in her apartment) to keep her company. Her disintegration feels forced. As for the men and women she sees who “ignore her, smiling,” Headie only has to “shake her head and they disappear.” These visions don’t add a new dimension to the story, or even provide an escape into fantasy or a sense of intrigue; they are simply a symbol of insanity, undramatic, and flat.
The proximity of the narrative voice to the minds of Abby, Livia, and Headie is an attempt to inhabit their experiences as they process them. Unfortunately, these characters as presented by Sherman aren’t at their best; stunted by depression, their ability to perceive their interior and exterior lives is limited, making the reader wonder why the narrative voice doesn’t make more of an effort to engage them or make observations that might give them more depth. Their lives and problems are complicated, but Sherman shies away from complexities. For example, in describing Livia’s distorted idea of motherhood, the narrator states, “No one was going to make her feel guilty for being in bed all day. She would be a Mother.” This unbelievable and unsympathetic presentation of Livia’s immaturity separates the reader from her, her apparent apathy and cluelessness being too much to bear.
While much action takes place over the course of the book (including a disastrous lesbian kiss, a near-fatal booze bender, and the death of the grandmother), the narrative voice is so distant from it that it feels like nothing has happened. The novel is not propelled by its plot—in fact, propelled is the wrong word; dragged is more apt. Without a strong plot or a more developed depiction of Livia and Headie, the book becomes a tedious exercise in boredom and depression in the suburbs.