Thurlow Dan is the leader of the Helix, a quasi-cult that has hundreds of thousands of members across the US and the world. Falling somewhere between a 12-step group and a megachurch, the Helix strives to cure people of their loneliness through a series of simple methods: speed-dating confessionals, thunderous rallies and so on.
The irony here is that Thurlow Dan himself, anti-loneliness guru though he may be, feels ferociously lonely. More than anything else, he misses his ex-wife Esme and their ten-year-old daughter. Reunion seems unlikely, given that Esme is a government agent sent to spy on Dan many years ago—and who is still keeping tabs on him, in disguise, unbeknownst to the guru.
Such is the setup of Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel’s uneven, sometimes frustrating second novel (after 2009’s Last Last Chance). The premise is a good one, but the execution is uneven and unbalanced, cycling as it does through a number of viewpoint characters when it would benefit from a steadier point of view.
This is particularly true at the beginning, in which the action jumps from Dan and Esme to Anne-Janet and Olgo, minor characters who nonetheless occupy a fair amount of the reader’s attention before giving way once more to Esme and Dan, who hold the stage for the bulk of the book. This point-of-view shifting serves only to confuse the reader, or at the very least to prepare him/her for a kind of constant inconsistency—which then never happens.
What happens instead is a hostage situation which forms the bulk of the novel’s central action and which is informed by a couple of long monologues from Dan and Esme as they record their personal records of how they got into this convoluted situation. These monologues, staged though they may be, incorporate some of the most engaging writing in the book. However, plopped as they are into the middle of a rather contrived hostage-taking scene, and with the memory of those other, unnecessary points of view still rattling in the reader’s brain, even these monologues are difficult to become fully immersed in.
In other words, the scattershot structure of the book interferes with the simple telling of the story, and when they story is as Byzantine as this one, anything that interferes with its telling is a problem.
Unfortunately, much of the story feels rather unconvincing. The book’s tone flip-flops; is this meant to be a sly commentary on self-help and 12-step groups? A zany, madcap romp complete with surly teens, befuddled parents and comically inept hostage-takers? A perceptive psychological study of adults caught in modern life’s meat-grinder existence? None of the above? All of the above?
The last seems most likely, yet in trying to do too much, the book ends up doing none of it terribly well. It doesn’t help that the plot is so far fetchef. Do undercover operatives really marry their targets? Are people really invited to North Korea to proselytize?—but again, maybe it would fit under the “zany satire” rubric. Except that there are long stretches here without anything too terribly zany.
Maazel is certainly capable of a pithy observation or well-honed one-liner. “Most unhappy place ever, the hospital lounge, except maybe the playground after a miscarriage.” Elsewhere, a character frets. “There was anxiety about his age—maybe sixty was not the new forty—and a sense that his daughter’s divorce imbroglio would bleed his pension dry. And finally, a growing fear that no one wanted to drink from the fount of wisdom that was, in the town square of his mind, its centerpiece.”
This is good stuff, but it relates to those minor characters mentioned above. It’s frustrating to have such sharp detail sketched out about a character who is then dropped from the narrative for a couple hundred pages. Sure, he comes back, but with so much happening in between, the reader has all but forgotten his significance.
Elsewhere, the narration reveals an observant eye and a memorable way with a phrase. “Light from the clerestory windows had vanished behind clouds that had rolled in fast. Even the weather seemed to have been conscripted into the narrative of doom being written outside.” But even such snappy sentences can’t overcome the self-consciousness of the writing, the imbalanced point of view and inconsistencies of tone that keep the reader at arm’s length from the story.
Graywolf Press is a terrific publishing company, and some of the best books I’ve read in the past few years have come from there. Susan Steinberg’s Spectacle and Percival Everett’s Erasure have both received rave reviews on these pages—and neither is an example of particularly “traditional” storytelling, whatever that might mean.
Woke Up Lonely is considerably less successful than these. It has its moments, and at its core there’s a palpable wistfulness, but there are too many distracting layers piled on top of it to let that story shine through.