[4 June 2014]
It’s been said that there are really only two plots—“I go on a journey” and “A stranger comes to town.” Most stories can be boiled down to one plot or the other. For example, Odysseus has a journey story. By contrast, in W. W. Jacobs’ story, “The Monkey’s Paw”, a stranger comes to town. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven”, a different kind of stranger comes to a different kind of town. And in Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap, yet another stranger arrives.
Kaui Hart Hemmings’s new novel, The Possibilities, falls under the “stranger-in-town” umbrella. It’s set in the present, in the ski village of Breckenridge, Colorado. Sarah St. John lives here among the very wealthy, and she ekes out a living as a breathless TV show host, singing the praises of various high-end boutiques in her neighborhood. During one show, she finds herself lost in uncontrollable laughter while describing a local business that allows consumers to purchase beaver pelts.
Indeed, consumerism is a main interest throughout the novel. Hemings smartly notes the ways in which bizarre products—including foods—seem to keep Americans afloat. My favorite of her many examples is a knife that heats up so that peanut butter can be easily spread on thin white bread. What a strange world we inhabit!
Anyway, though Sarah lives in paradise, her life is not enviable. She has just lost her son, Cully, in an avalanche. He was in his early 20, just at the beginning of his adult life.
So who is the stranger in this town? It’s a girl named Kit, and she pops up on Sarah’s doorstep, offering to shovel snow. (Breckenridge refuses to use salt on the roads, because the salt damages the cars. This is just one of many little historical facts you’ll learn in this novel. Also, Breckenridge took its name from a politician named “Breckinridge”. When Mr. Breckinridge proved to be an ass, the town dropped the first “i” from its name and replaced it with an “e”.)
Kit seems to have a secret about Cully, and she’s hesitant to spill her guts. It’s a hallmark of Hemmings’s prose that no revelations emerge smoothly or easily. People fumble with the words and leave things unsaid. In other words, they behave as they would really behave in actual life.
Eventually, it emerges that Kit knew Cully fairly well, and that her involvement with Cully has produced an irreversible, life-altering twist of events. I’ll try to say very little more about the plot.
Many critics are right to compare this charming, modest book to Hemmings’s first novel, The Descendants. Even the titles are strikingly similar. Both novels unfold in a version of paradise. Both involve debilitating bouts with grief. Both feature road trips with strange assortments of characters.
Everyone will remember the terrific car scenes in Alexander Payne’s adaptation of The Descendants (2011). In that movie, a quirky, wonderfully well-cast young man torments Matt King (George Clooney), who can’t quite determine whether or not this goofball is having sexual relations with his daughter. You’ll find a bit more of the same in this new novel.
Sarah St. John has an odd, touching, and memorable relationship with Kit, who is consistently surprising and mysterious. Most importantly, both of Hemmings’s novels are interested in the gap between adolescence and adulthood, and both have brilliant things to say about young, unformed lives. For example, Sarah feels a moment of guilt for all the times she pointed out to her occasionally aimless son that various peers of his were pursuing lives as doctors and foreign correspondents. She asks herself what the hurry was, and she compares young adult lives to simmering pots of water on a hot stove. She asks, “Why can’t we just let them cook?”
You’ll also likely enjoy this book’s observations about grief. There’s an American urge to paper over the bleak realities of life. For example, a mother of another avalanche victim attempts to comfort Sarah by observing that the dead boys passed away while doing “what they loved”. Sarah quietly notes that getting killed by an avalanche was most certainly not what her son loved to do.
Hemmings is like a wise alien, gleefully pointing out the bizarre ways in which people in America behave. If we’re getting over a divorce, we might imagine that divorce is in some way comparable to the death of a child. (It’s not.) If we feel incomplete, we may stuff ourselves with wine and cheese, with the impression that extra calories will make us whole. (They won’t.) If we miss our ex, we might decide it’s a good idea to place a phone call to the ex about his cuff links, which we’ve found, because we secretly believe that the cuff links might lure the ex back to our bed. (The ex will never come back back.)
All of this is to say that I enjoy Hemmings’s stinging awareness of the power of irrational thought.
And now: a note on style. While I was reading this novel, I was also making my way through Michael Cunningham’s irritating new work, The Snow Queen. It was instructive to read the two books side by side. Cunningham is in love with the sound of his own literary voice; there’s a glibness in his mannered prose. His meandering, needlessly complex sentences initially suggest depth and intelligence, but actually his new book has very little to say. It’s sound and fury, signifying nothing—or something very close to nothing.
On the other hand, Hemmings’s observations are the opposite of mannered. She writes simple sentences. She does not feel the need to become overly philosophical or grandiose. Instead, she lets the reader do some imaginative work. She reports on a variety of events, both intra- and interpersonal, and she allows the reader to draw her own conclusions. Though she doesn’t flaunt her literary knowledge, she achieves much greater results than her older, flashier colleague, Cunningham.
I’m sorry to see that Jason Reitman, who directed Up in the Air (2009) may be directing the movie version of The Possibilities. My advice to Hemmings: Hold out for Alexander Payne. Don’t sacrifice quality for a wad of cash.
And one other suggestion: It might be time to branch out. This new work is a nearly perfect novel, but try for something completely different next time. But who’s to say? There are foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes take on new and startling challenges each time they write a book; as Michiko Kakutani once noted, Jane Smiley is a prime example of a literary fox. Hedgehogs tell and re-tell the same story, with subtle variations. Examples: Barbara Pym and Anita Brookner. Hemmings may be a hedgehog.
In any case, I’m happy to await Hemmings’s third novel. It’s consistently entertaining to note what happens when a stranger comes to one of her towns.