Do Not Become Alarmed
(Riverhead Books, 2017)
The first Maile (pronounced, just so you’re hearing it correctly in your head from here out: my-lee) Meloy thing I remember reading was the story about the guy who does proxy marriages with his crush/friend for quick/easy cash (it was in the New Yorker in ’12 and is called “The Proxy Marriage”); it was a pretty story, and freighted, and it had a weird magnetism to it, but it didn’t upend me. The story that did that was/is her masterful “Two-step,” which is in her absolutely perfect collection Both Ways is the Only Way I Want It, and I’m better off not getting into the story and my almost rhapsodic fervency for it. It’s among the very best American short stories written in the last thirty years.
What Meloy does so well in “Two-step” are the same things she does so well across all her work: she’s as precise a characterizer as anyone, and has maybe the purest sentences you could hope for—I’m not sure how to say it better than that. Here’s an analogy: Joe Mauer, of my beloved MN Twins, was described early in his career as having the purest, sweetest swing in the game (he looked, in profile, not unlike Harmon Killebrew, the supposed inspiration for the MLB symbol.) Other folks hit harder, had more homers, whatever, but his swing looked like the sort of Platonic ideal of sweet swings. Meloy’s sentences strike me similarly: they offer a multivalent satisfaction—in construction, in sound, in detail/content, in pacing—that feels like what we should all aim for.
Plus Meloy’s work feels almost always to me almost trickily good. She’s not showy, not flashy: most of her work starts mundanely—in “Two-step,” it’s a woman going to her friend’s house to have some tea and listen to the friend complain about her significant other—and the reader (this reader, anyway) doesn’t even realize how loaded and critical things have become until the tension’s thick as the bacon grease haze in the air on BLT night in a big family. Here’s the start of “The Proxy Marriage,” just to give an idea:
William was tall and thin and shy and awkward in school. His best social tool was that he played the piano, and so was recruited for school musicals, which placed him at rehearsals and cast parties with kids he would otherwise scarcely have known. He thought he would either be a pianist or a physicist, although he didn’t know anyone in Montana who did those things professionally. His piano teacher was a banker’s widow who gave lessons in her lace-curtained house, and his physics teacher was primarily the wrestling coach. But William could imagine another kind of life.
While there’s plenty still to know and learn past that introductory paragraph, you get a ton of clarity—about William and the type of writer Meloy is—just from those five sentences (and good lord: make a better springboard of loaded opacity than that last sentence).
All of this is both a) me urging you to get as far into Maile Meloy’s work as you can and b) preamble to set the scene for her latest novel, Do Not Become Alarmed, which came out in June and features, to this reader, the hallmarks of greatness you’d expect from Meloy’s work but also—and I could be wrong, given that I haven’t read anything other than her books of stories—a deep connection to current American conditions (i.e. this thing’s got something of Cultural Relevancy, which is almost never a factor for me when reading but seems worth acknowledging given the current Culture) that makes it even more gasp-inducing.
And to be clear, Do Not Become Alarmed is—like lots of what Meloy writes—a fairly simple set-up. Like the best art, it takes almost no work to describe the set-up but you’d run out of language before articulating how it works as well as it does. In Do Not Become Alarmed, the central plot conflict is that some kids get lost. That’s it. More broadly: two cousins—Liv and Nora—are taking their families on a Christmas cruise through Central America. On docking in Costa Rica, Liv and Nora and their husbands and kids disembark for a day trip—the men to play golf, the women and kids to a beach. Six kids, total—two each for Liv and Nora, plus two more belonging to an Argentinian couple Liv and Nora have become friends with on the boat.
Yet the plot itself acts like a maypole, with threads being wrapped around it throughout the story, coming sooner than you can even really realize. It’s there even in the book’s first paragraph:
The cruise ship towered over the dock in San Pedro like an enormous white layer cake, or a floating apartment building. The one thing it didn’t look like was an oceangoing vessel. Liv and her family surrendered their bags to porters and carried their backpacks into the terminal building. Her husband, Benjamin, was fascinated by the quay, built to get thousands of people onto fifteen-deck ships.
You don’t have a reason to suspect, this early in the book, that the verb surrendered will later seem freighted, that the book’s propulsion has almost everything to do with various characters feeling like their fighting between their own agency and surrendering to larger forces. Plus the incongruence of cruise ships in general—you’re hit with several hints from the start that there’s something incorrect about this whole thing, either fake or literally impossible.
You can do this with just about every one of Meloy’s paragraphs. She’s a flawless builder. Almost everything she puts on the page is pulling at least double-duty, sometimes more, and the organization—how the story unfolds, how little time she wastes, how much she trusts the reader (the kids’ disappearance is noted on the ARC on page 49, and comes with a scream from elsewhere—there’s a complicated sex-scene that the kids’ disappearance sort of interrupts—and is no more freighted than this: “That was when they heard the first shout”)—is so tight, the construction so solid, that I dare any reader to pick this up after dinner and not keep reading past when you’d usually hit the pillow.
Which is great: we can all sit back and rhapsodize about her engineering abilities—which are substantial—but she’s actually even better at characterization, by which I don’t just mean that you can fully see/recognize Liv and her husband Benjamin, Nora and her husband Raymond, their kids—Penny, Sebastian (who’s diabetic), Marcus (who’s on the spectrum), June—and the Argintinians they befriend (Gunther and Camila, and their kids Isabel and Hector)—but that this omnipotent clarity and precision on Meloy’s part extends everywhere: to Pedro the tour guide who drives the van Liv, Nora and the kids take off in for the beach (which breaks down, by the by, hence they don’t get to see howler monkeys as planned); to all the police investigating the missing kids and the hotel liasons attempting to help the crazed parents; to each seemingly minor character that appears—Oscar, a 15 year-old who literally saves the day; Noemi, an immigrant whose story threads through the novel illustrating with devastating clarity the difference between first- and third-world problems. Here’s an analogy: in cameras, it’s hard to get everything in the picture in focus, if you’re taking a big depth-of-field picture: for those, you need longer exposure times, things to stay still. That’s somehow what Meloy does: every single element is in tight, perfect focus, which would be less stunning if it weren’t for how many elements there are (there are at least 20 characters you come to care for eventually).
This review could go for days. It’s almost impossible to overhype this book and its accomplishments: it’s a masterclass in plotting alone, let alone characterization, threading Contemporary Themes, precision of description, etc. Plus it’s got an ending that’s somehow a deeply satisfying punch in the gut. I mean this in the best way: you can’t ask for much more of fiction than what Maile Meloy offers here. Even if you’ve read her before, it’s hard not to be stunned at how powerfully well she's come out swinging here.