A Lot Can Happen in a Year
Bear with me if this sounds a bit like a soap opera. Shirin and Morgan are in a relationship. Morgan, however, is infatuated with Chantal, the female lead in a French TV series. Meanwhile, Morgan is the object of someone else’s affections: Lance, a gay writer with a severe case of writers block. Shirin, for her part, fends off the affections of Farzad, who apparently wants littler more than “a Persian trophy bride”. Oh, and Shirin’s trying to get into medical school. And Lance is suffering from a disease. Don’t let these rather broad strokes dissuade you from checking out Odds Off, though. It’s really a bit more complicated than that, and in Matt Madden’s hands, very satisfying.
The world Madden paints is inhabited by people in various states of discomfort. It’s a world where folks are trying to extend their education, or when the jobs that were initially taken to pay for school are starting to look like de facto career choices. People begin fielding consequences from the wild oats they sowed as youths, and the threat of stasis, of limbo brought about by complacency, hangs over everything.
Sounds pretty much like everyone I’ve known the minute the graduation ceremonies were over.
Shirin and Morgan are the focal point of the story. Shirin’s attempts to get into medical school, despite the bleak picture painted by her undergraduate transcripts, have her cracking under the stress. Combined with a work environment that places her among a host of ultra-conservative coworkers, as well as an increasingly distant boyfriend, the strain is beginning to prove too much. Morgan seems to have retreated into a combination fantasy world/fetal position dominated by Francophile sensibilities and way too many Serge Gainsbourg records. Odds Off portrays a pair that initially seems happy, but as the story progresses, they both begin to sense the satisfaction that gnaws away at the couple’s roots.
Lance obsesses over Morgan from afar, breaking into cold sweats at even a glimpse, and generally letting it darken his mood. As the story begins, Lance is pretty much insufferable, and it’s a wonder anyone hangs around him at all. By various characters’ accounts, his writing ability is formidable in a proto-Burroughs beat fashion, but he seems to have paid the price in social skills.
It’s with this small cast, and some extras, that Madden peels away layers of existences that need a good hard kick in the collective rear. Fans of more extreme portraits of reality might find it a bit tame - even Shirin’s outbursts at Morgan are highly controlled. Life, however, isn’t always marked by Big Moments; it’s often the little disappointments and comforts that tell the real story. This is the angle that Odds Off comes from, when it shows a sleeping Morgan reaching over to grab the leg of his nightstand. In his dreams, the nightstand is a pier, and it’s keeping his floating mattress from floating off on the high seas. The image becomes all the more poignant when, after a fight with Shirin, he’s sleeping on the couch and his arm can’t find anything to hold onto.
Madden’s excursions into such symbolic scenes are few, and when he springs them on you, they possess a real wallop. After passing by some catcalling frat boys, for example, Shirin returns to her apartment and collapses on the bed. However, by the time she hits the mattress, she’s peeled off her clothes, skin, and muscles, removing every external part of her that can conceivably cause her pain. It’s a scene that comes out of the blue, and as a reader, you can’t help but linger on it in fascination.
Stylistic peaks like those are few, though. Madden’s artistic style is largely realistic, breaking for the occasional surreal scene, or when he portrays scenes from Morgan’s TV show in panels shaped like TV screens. One of his subplots, though—that of Lance’s writer’s block—is purely fantastic. Lance has a severe case of word lice—you can see the little critters writhing on the letters of his writing—and he must take medication and refrain from any serious writing (doctor’s orders include “later on you can do a bit of typing, but only using sans serif fonts”). His sentences won’t form, he gets dizzy whenever he tries anything more complicated than the alphabet, and it drives him to burn all of his previous writing. Out of it, though, comes a new, Joycean level of achievement. If only writers block could be cured with a simple prescription, but the message is clear. Lance literally has to devolve back to square one before he can progress.
It’s a lesson that Shirin and Morgan, in their own way, must also learn. Lance’s troubles bring a high level of language trauma into Odds Off, and Shirin’s and Morgan’s troubles have some roots in the same ground. Morgan’s aforementioned addiction to all things French have him driving everyone around him crazy with his incessant French practice (he even imagines himself into the TV series with Chantal at one point, one of the few times that we find him vocalizing his doubts). It’s not that he’s not understood. Everyone around him seems equally conversant in French (must not be set in America!); it’s more the idea that he’s using the language as a wall. In a nice twist, a later scene finds Morgan sitting uncomfortably while Shirin makes party plans with a friend, speaking in Farsi.
How does it all wrap up? Well, everyone meets up at a Persian New Year’s party (in a nice touch, Madden frames the story in separate New Year’s parties, giving the story a strong cyclical feel), but there are no fireworks to speak of. In fact, some of the characters meet for the very first time. By book’s end, some of them fare better than others—pretty much like real life. In the long run, though, you get the sense that everyone will be better off. If nothing else shows Madden’s light touch with his narrative, the dénouement that wraps up Odds Off illustrates it perfectly. His characters can be vain, frustrating, and obtuse, but they’re all basically searching for the same thing: some center that gives them comfort as everything is changing.
In my own experience, I can attest to knowing people who only seemed meant to occupy others’ lives for pivotal short periods and little else. It’s a sense of transience that Madden seems to respect. Lance’s affections for Morgan will obviously never be requited, but they spur him to a new level of artistic achievement. Morgan and Shirin might not be meant for each other, but if they end their lives with other people, then it seems that at the very least, each one’s presence helped the other through a difficult time. At the end of Odds Off, you get the very real sense that many of these people will never see each other, that some will stay in loose contact, and that one or two will remain the best of friends. Again, it sounds pretty much like real life, in all of its complicated, often mundane glory.