I first discovered Jami Attenberg back when the website Nerve was still publishing fiction. Attenberg was a refreshing powerhouse. Here was a writer who was sharp but not too sharp, someone who was able to capture a mood and images just so. Her characters were muddled young women complicated by their vulnerability and strength. They harbored that old longing to connect and that longing expressed itself mostly through sex and the sex offered up some unexpected insights.
The Melting Season, Attenberg’s second novel, attempts to bring those qualities into a sustained piece of fiction. Catherine Madison is muddled for sure. She’s a sheltered young woman on the run with a suitcase full of her estranged husband’s cash. Catherine’s running from just about everything: broken marriage, broken family and broken life. The theft and road trip that lands Catherine in Las Vegas brims with potential, especially since Catherine is captive to both her fears and emotional numbness. Las Vegas offers dazzle and wantonness and just plain old release, and while these things happen in varying degrees in the story, they stop short of being fully realized.
The novel starts with Catherine explaining how she began taking her husband’s money little by little. Just something to comfort her through the long Nebraska winter. Then she decides to take all of it. “And there was nothing left to do afterward but get the hell out of town.” Catherine barely arrives in Las Vegas when she develops a sudden and intense friendship with Valka, a cancer survivor with her own story. Valka is the one who initiates Catherine into forbidden territory of feelings. We see this when Valka offers to show Catherine her bald head, a move that Catherine rightly interprets as an opportunity to bond with another person.
In her short fiction, Attenberg creates broken but not completely destroyed young women. Here, Catherine’s not so much destroyed as she is flat. Her defining characteristics are her long blond hair and inability to feel. Unfortunately a character’s inability to feel seeps into other areas of the story, and it’s not so good when the character who can’t feel is the one telling us the story. We trust Catherine’s telling us the truth but since we know she’s skimming the surface of things we also know that we’re missing out on a lot.
The Melting Season has its moments. The problem is that it’s hard to tell if Attenberg intends those moments to be comical or poignant. Things like Catherine and Thomas getting married right out of high school. Or Thomas’ tiny penis that is supposedly transformed during penile implant surgery. Or the transgender Prince impersonator who Catherine meets and maybe sleeps with in Vegas.
The same missed opportunities can be said of the characters who mirror Catherine’s flatness and fall right into clichés. There’s the bitter, drunken mother, the slutty little sister and Catherine’s own man-child husband. I kept waiting for Attenberg to up the intensity on these characters, to add layers and shades. When it didn’t happen I wondered if she had been encouraged to play it safe to appeal to a more mainstream, commercial audience.
Attenberg’s writing does shine through and she has some lovely bits like, “Up above I could see the Milky Way. Inside, my husband rubbed his fingers against the lids of his eyes until he saw stars.” Or when Catherine studies her reflection in the hotel mirror: “The bones below my neck stuck out like a picked over chicken wing. Once I was pretty. I would be again someday.”
The tragedy of this character is that many of the secrets she guards so fiercely are not really her secrets at all. Once Catherine spills them she is forced into action. But by then much of the story’s momentum is lost. There’s nowhere new or especially interesting for the characters or story to go.
In the end, most stories that feature a road trip offer only a few options. You can keep driving, return home, or drive off a cliff. In Catherine’s case there’s really only one choice. I wasn’t rooting for Catherine on those last few pages. She’s right where we expected her to be. I am rooting for Attenberg, though. I say, next time, let it ride. Don’t play it safe. Bring us right over that edge.