The notification came on a weekend, and Jake’s, in Iceland, had gotten through first. Sarah was in a desert, her cell phone wasn’t working well, and she had to go back to the base to find out what was wrong.
She calls him from the landline,and he tells her as much as he knows.
“Whatever’s coming, I feel I don’t deserve it,” he adds.
“You’re breaking up,” she says.
Through static, they agree to drop everything and take a week to straighten things out.
These days there aren’t that many things that happen to both of them. Their children is one of them.
If you’re thrown by that story opening, well, I think you should be. I probably read it six times before continuing on, since I couldn’t quite grasp what was happening. Iceland? Base? Desert? And it feels like a tense switch, though it isn’t; it just starts out in flashback mode. It’s a very strange opening. But not really, because everything is pretty ordinary, when you get right down to it: Jake is working in Iceland, Sarah in some desert somewhere else, and have received some kind of notification about their children who are yet another place. That’s what really confused me; I got the impression, from the word “notification,” that the children had died, but the parents seemed much to calm for that, and reacting to death by “straightening it out” seemed like an odd reaction.
Turns out, it was much, much stranger than I thought.
You know how Catch-22 is surreal in a realistic way? Nothing is truly bizarre, it’s just that no one reacts to anything the way you’d think they would, and nothing seems to mean, to the characters, what the reader thinks it should mean. That’s what we’ve got here. Weird realizm (I keep typing the “z” in that by mistake, but I’ve decided, since I’m inventing the term, I’m keeping it).
Jake and Sarah, we find out in the next page or so, are public health physicians whose mission in life is much bigger than their two children, Ned and Samantha, now 15 and 12. When they were younger, Sarah worked only full-time (which hardly counts at all):
…envying the freedom of those who were about to travel to Viet Nam to look at the life cycles of schistosomes in the rice paddies or to study the incidence of cryptosporidium in hikers due to gannet guano encounters in the Orkneys. But mainly she wished she was able to just plain intervene in refugee migrations or plagues or the other holocausts that swirled around the planet.
What she didn’t particularly want to do was intervene in the lives of her kids, who, at ages 9 and 12, went to boarding school at their own request. “No one cried.” Jake and Sarah travelled the globe fixing other people. Doctoring gradually morphed into something else: consulting, microfinance consortiums, charity management, non-charitable management. Wealth building in developing countries became their specialties. And it’s all thanks to the boarding school.
And, as the title indicates, they become the people whose picture you see in the dictionary under “narcissist:”
They became the sort of people of whom they used to be wary, people with a deep sense of entitlement stemming rom knowledge of how unnecessary most barriers and restrictions are. They knew others were oppressed. They refused to be oppressed themselves. They became the kind of people who don’t suffer.
It didn’t begin about class. It ended up that way.
Perhaps they were poorly understood. Confusing to themselves, and their children.
The notification was not a death at all; the children were suspended from school and about to face an expulsion hearing for running a nascent and vaguely described “trafficking ring” using as cover a kind of reverse of the Fresh Air program: instead of sending inner city kids to the country, they were arranging rural hosts for “overprivileged and understimulated” boarding school kids – presumably, with nefarious purposes in mind. The school is worried about its sterling reputation, and its endowments. Jake and Sarah are worried about losing a permanent 24/7/365 baby sitter. No one’s really worried about the kids, who seem to be a bit odd: Sarah starts sucking her thumb, she carries a doll, and Ned has these strange facial expressions.
Jake and Sarah take the kids home, and get their comeuppance in dramatic and appropriate fashion, before Sarah finds salvation (which to me is perhaps the weak point of the story; her salvation seems to just happen rather than to evolve in a way that makes it inevitable, and as a result, it doesn’t seem all that sincere). Step by step, it’s all so logical. It just gets weird when it’s looked at from a distance, as a whole.
There are some amazing touches here. I like how the weird realizm builds, from eccentricity to pathology to downright absurdity. And there are some wonderfully subtle moments. Sarah waits in the headmistress’ office: “Accustomed to visiting schools of airy thatch and newly poured concrete, she finds all this carved-wood panelling coffinlike.” The kids, who have been in touch occasionally with their parents via Skype and DVDs, are surprised to see them in three dimensions. And Sarah is not without the occasional sliver of ironic insight: “She’s not proud of a certain ruthlessness behind all the do-gooding but there is nothing so wrong with ambition if you’re for the causes that matter.”
And there we have the crux of the matter. Sandra Leong discussed her process, and the importance of deadlines, for this piece on the Ploughshares blog:
I’d just completed a second revision of a novel that had taken five years to write, and was feeling acutely – and depressingly – how much ambition and narcissism it would take to persevere beyond the first few rejections. I was also feeling rather defensive about the writers’ right and duty to bring unsympathetic characters into the world and cherish them as adored children. Luckily, for the purposes of my feeling able to continue to write, Jim Shepard gave me a deadline, and this self-important married couple came to mind. I was intrigued by the way their notions of their own good will and selflessness might be called into question by their blithe neglect of their offspring. And as I began, all sorts of other roiling and fragmented preoccupations – from the plight of women and the perversity of artists to the mysterious state of the Democratic party and the fate of modern liberalism – began to cohere.
That coherence is impressive. And why am I not surprised to find Sandra Leong is a psychotherapist? I hope to read more by her soon.