Caught in the Middle
Amity Gaige’s new novel, Schroder, was published by Twelve, a group devoted to producing just 12 books per year. The books are supposedly all very good. Certainly, Twelve’s non-fiction book, Columbine (a report on the Columbine tragedy by Dave Cullen, and the only other Twelve book I’ve read), was excellent.
Schroder tells the story of a man who came over to the US as a little boy. He and his father escaped East Berlin and began a new life in a depressed town outside Boston. But the little boy, Eric Schroder, had big dreams. He began to falsify his identity. To get into a nice summer camp, he claimed that he was Eric Kennedy, an American boy who had fallen on hard times. He so enjoyed his American persona, he retained it throughout his early adult life. He maintained his lie even within his marriage; his wife never met his father and never learned of his real last name.
At the start of the novel, the marriage has collapsed. Schroder’s wife feels he is distant, lazy, and irresponsible. Schroder is especially sad that he has minimal access to his little daughter, Meadow. And so he does something stupid. On a visitation with his daughter, he decides to try his hand at kidnapping. He and his daughter disappear for several days.
Most of the novel is concerned with Schroder’s disappearance. He and his daughter spend time with a possibly disreputable older woman, who seduces Eric. At the border between US and Canada, Eric considers stuffing his daughter in the trunk to hide her, but then decides he cannot be so reckless. Eventually, Eric and his daughter find themselves in Boston, where they have an adventure on the swan boats. An unexpected asthma attack presents major problems.
You find yourself beginning to care—a bit—about Eric and his bright little girl. How can this trip end in anything other than disaster? Will both father and daughter make it through alive?
Many aspects of the novel are skillful. It’s evident that Gaige has a good deal of experience with children; the comments and observations that Meadow make tend to ring true. (When she is dizzy, Meadow observes that she feels “spinnish”.) Also, the twists and turns are frequently gripping. I especially enjoyed the passage about the asthma attack.
It’s interesting, too, to read a bit about the history of the Berlin Wall. Eric’s escape from East Berlin is described in little snippets throughout the novel. Gaige provides fascinating anecdotes about just how bad life was in East Berlin, and just how desperate some people were to escape. (People built an aluminum airplane to fly over the border. Others swam across. One person converted a buoy into a little powerboat that tugged him into West Berlin.)
Beyond this, there’s a nice, understated use of tadpole imagery here and there. Twelve has printed little images of a long-tailed tadpole with legs at the start of each chapter. The reader is reminded that Eric is “between lives”, like a maturing tadpole; he is awkwardly making his way toward a new existence, possibly a life behind bars.
That said, I can’t bring myself to believe fully in Gaige’s premise. Jonathan Franzen notes in the press materials that Gaige has a gift for making the implausible plausible. I don’t think so. The character of Eric’s wife is left improbably cloudy. Who would commit to a marriage for years without asking to know some concrete facts about her spouse’s background? I know, I know; stranger things have happened.
Gaige’s story is loosely based on an account of a real man who falsely claimed he was a Rockefeller. Still, it’s not adequate to say, “Well, things like this happen in real life.” The task of the novelist is to persuade her readers that her specific is really unfolding before the reader’s eyes. I never entirely felt that way while reading Schroder. Gaige does not seem fully convinced by the claims of her own narrative, and so I cannot be convinced.
Worse, still, is the accumulation of pretentious arty passages in this novel. There are obnoxious, gimmicky footnotes and unnecessary German-language passages. One gets the sense that Gaige is relying on these gimmicks to paper over the holes in her own story. Raymond Carver never had to resort to footnotes. If Gaige had a stronger story to tell, then she would not have required so many bells and whistles.
There is at least one moment of overly on-the-nose dialogue. Meadow, the daughter, ends a chapter by saying to her father that a nearby stranger is unaware “how big our imaginations are.” Children really do say delightful things such as Meadow’s comment, but I felt that Gaige’s handling of this scene was sentimental. To end the chapter in that way is to evoke memories of certain sappy Hallmark commercials.
And I object to the self-conscious lyricism of this observation: “My mouth tastes old and damp, like a cave.” What does it mean to have an old-tasting mouth? And who in the world has “tasted” a cave? I can’t fully surrender myself to a writer who has produced such a sentence.
Maybe I’m being too hard on this novel. I just wasn’t moved. I found it technically proficient—for the most part—but emotionally stunted.
I will say I very much enjoyed some of Gaige’s observations about silence. Schroder notes that conversation is sometimes meant to cover up the awful truths that might surface if we sat in silence for a few moments. He recalls a famous pause after Margaret Thatcher was asked how she felt her successor, John Major, was doing. After a long, painful hesitation, Thatcher produced a diplomatic answer. But the pause spoke volumes.
Schroder also discusses the playwright Harold Pinter and his famous use of awkward silence. Schroder argues—convincingly—that silence can be more meaningful, more powerful, than words. And, in one of the novel’s more memorable passages, Schroder describes a frigid Pinter-esque dialogue between a husband and wife. The wife says, “You might as well sit.” The husband asks, “Where?... Next to you?” And, after a long silence, the wife ignores the question and asks if her daughter is asleep.
In sum: Gaige is a bright writer with a nice way of capturing some of life’s absurdities. But this novel didn’t give me goosebumps, and it didn’t make me cry. There is a saying in the teaching profession: You should “teach like your hair is on fire.” You should teach with crazy passion, without inhibition. Alas, I don’t feel that Gaige is writing with her “hair on fire”. This novel is too calculated, too controlled.