“On the July morning in 1979 when we got word from New York that Henry Robbins had died on his way to work a few hours before, had fallen dead, age fifty-one, to the floor of the 14th street subway station, there was only one person I wanted to talk to about it, and that person was Henry.”
—Joan Didion, After Henry,
Beginning a review of Mona Simpson’s latest novel with a quotation from Joan Didion’s nonfiction ouevre may appear odd, but Casebook’s elegiac tone and setting repeatedly reminded me of that steadfast, wide-eyed chronicler of California. Didion’s book of essays was written after her beloved editor died suddenly, leaving her bereft. So many losses were to follow.
It struck me, with another wave of sadness, that Simpson is Steve Jobs’s sister. They were famously close. Casebook is her first work written after his death, effectively making the book “After Steve”.
Indeed, life is cruel, a trite observation failing to lessen the impact of either woman’s loss.
Didion and Simpson share other similarities: both earned undergraduate English degrees at UC Berkeley, then moved to Southern California, where each was associated with “The Industry”: that is, the business of movies and television. Didion, with spouse John Gregory Dunne, was a scriptwriter for decades, while Simpson’s ex-husband wrote for the television show The Simpsons, lending his wife’s name to Homer’s hippie mother.
Both women have deeply engaged with California as more than a place in their novels: it is its own character. Didion on California is its own book; indeed, if somebody out there hasn’t already penned a critical analysis of Didion’s California, then one is surely in the works. Analysis of Simpson’s writing will follow at some future date, a bright-eyed doctoral student fervently copying out sentences like this:
Women in Uggs and down vests followed leashed dogs while we waited in the car… The mountains felt close; we could see their brown ridges. Winter in Santa Monica.
Wilshire Boulevard rolled out straight and forever until it finally began to change, passing our desolate downtown… We were growing up in a city whose very own downtown had fallen to waste and windy debris, a place we were driven to in cars a few times year with muffled automatic locks to hear music before the long ride home. Now I know there’s whole world there.
Simpson’s novels, always sensitive and complex, have only become more so with time, acquiring the depth only a seasoned writer can proffer. Life, with its marriages and divorces, childbirths, illnesses and deaths, mars. Scars. It also affords a wealth of material generally unavailable to younger writers.
The titular “Casebook” is intended to read as a long-form graphic novel, penned by Miles Adler-Hart, with illustrations and annotations by best friend Hector. In truth, even though there are a few illustrations and footnotes for the “story within a story”, Casebook isn’t really a graphic novel. Rather, it’s a classic coming-of-age novel, a beautifully written example of the genre.“There are footnotes, and a few illustrations, but Casebook is basically a classic first-person coming-of-age novel, a tremendously engrossing, moving example of the genre.
Miles Adler-Hart is a child whose nosy tendencies garner far more information than he hopes for. His intended target is his mother, Irene, aka The Mims. Twin sisters Emma and Jamie are collectively known as the Boops. Separately, they are Boop One and Boop Two. Father Cary, interestingly, is only ever called Dad.
The Mims, known as Reen to the adults around her, is a mathematician teaching at UCLA. Cary is television writer. Early in Casebook, while Miles and the Boops are still very young, the couple divorces, straining to keep things amiable.
Cary soon finds a girlfriend, the beginning of a string of girlfriends, but the shy, less outgoing Irene only has one lover after her marriage: Eli, who works for the National Science Foundation in Washington, D.C. During a temporary appointment at UCLA, he begins running with Irene. When her marriage dissolves, the idiosyncratic Eli, with his odd box haircut and near-stutter, takes possession of her heart.
One of the ways Eli accomplishes this is by winning over her children; he takes Miles for walks, build him bookshelves, helps organize his comics collection. He shows Miles how to wash his clothing, demonstrating the workings of the washer and dryer. He takes an interest in Boop Two, aka Jamie, who suffers severe reading difficultles and is less popular than her twin.
Sharing her passion for animals, he drives her to the local shelter, where she becomes a volunteer. The shelter is a place where Jamie can shine. Perhaps most importantly, he makes Irene feel beautiful. He is the rare heterosexual male who knows how to buy a woman the perfect dress, finding beauty where others see none. He remembers the names of Eli’s friends. This is far more than Cary ever did or does, making it easy to understand what Irene Adler sees in Eli Lee.
Miles and the Boops are also taken in. There’s a magical Christmas vacation on Mt. Pinos, high in the mountains above Pasadena. There are countless tapped phone calls that don’t quite make sense to preadolesecent ears, with their promises of leaving and money, but they do involve money, which there is less of since Cary left, and the Mims seems happy, so Miles, while nervous about talk of moving house, is bascially pleased with Eli.
But his buddy Hector is not.
Hector and Miles have been friends since they were small. Casebook begins in 2000: the internet isn’t yet the sophisticated (and messy) place it will become. But the protagonists are young and exceptionally bright, the first generation to grow up with this intangible thing that will change the way we conduct our lives. Both boys take readily to it, Hector more avidly than Miles in matters Eli.
They wire the house and telephone with various gadgets, check Irene’s email, read the paper mail, ransack dresser drawers. Miles would prefer to ignore what they find, but Hector, who adores Irene and distrusts Eli, pushes him relentlessly to face facts. Then the boys must decide what to do with their ill-gotten information.
Simpson works in much commentary about the wealthy denizens of West Los Angeles, people with big money or close to it, trying terribly hard to maintain “a family romance”. Much of this ground was investigated from differing vantage points in 2010’s My Hollywood, which looked at similar groups via their Filipina nannies. In each case, “family romance” means a happy family life or an approximation thereof, despite divorce, an absent father, the rented house, the non-reading daughter, the boyfriend with a fragile net of multiple excuses. It means a carefully home-cooked meal on the table nightly, the right private school (here, the hippie Cottonwoods), the right vacations, the right accessories.
In the end, the truth will shake out, with enormous ramifications. It’s hard now to imagine such innocence could exist only a few years ago, in the early days of this century, before simple internet searches told you far too about about any one individual. Casebook is perhaps the exception to the trend of TMI: Irene Adler would have benefited from knowing too much.
Casebook is compelling reading, and you will want to race toward the conclusion. A word of warning: this is not a book to finish in a public space. Save the final few pages for private reading. This family romance deserves your undivided, teary attention.