[11 January 2009]
PopMatters Features Editor
How often do you find yourself parked on the couch, watching television, snacking, feet resting on the coffee table, nodding off, lazing the day away? Naturally, that’s how Benjamin Parzybok’s three loser characters all start out, unemployed, caught into the black hole gravity that is their Couch.
Consider Thom, a programmer who can’t land a job because of some historic hacking incident involving a major software company. How about Tree, a seemingly clairvoyant hippie with a knack for impromptu wire sculptures? And let’s not forget about Erik, the mustachioed con artist who more often than not gets caught. All living under the same roof, loafing around, these three lowlifes are suddenly charged with an important mission when a raunchy sexcapade upstairs ends up popping a waterbed that floods their apartment, sending them out onto the street, carrying a magical couch all around Portland, one that no one is willing to accept.
Such an odd premise, no wonder Couch has been proclaimed the Indie Next Pick of January 2009. The very idea of a magical couch that pulls three degenerates across the country intrigued this reviewer enough to give Parzybok’s debut novel a chance. Unfortunately, the fact that the couch has mysterious powers (namely that it seems to weigh less when carried a certain direction, not to mention that it withstands a train collision and floats on water) is about the only delight this book contains.
For starters, one of the major flaws with Couch is the lack of character development. Case in point, though Thom constantly lies to his mother about his position in life and remains conflicted about his ex-girlfriend, his personal history is never woven into the quest itself, which left this reader feeling as though the backstory had been tacked on, nothing more than fluff to support an oddball journey. So too, Erik has father issues that he never confronts, and Tree references a childhood spent within a commune that left him somehow changed, yet the quality of his experience is never completely revealed or even investigated.
Truth be told, the couch remains the most interesting character throughout the book, overwhelming any kind of personal attachment to the human characters themselves. While anonymous online bidders offer small fortunes for this ugly piece of furniture and a mysterious group of collectors try to steal the couch at gunpoint at every turn, ancient prophecies referring to the three who will return the “seat of power” to the city of the lost are rumored throughout South America, where magic is still celebrated and culturally practiced.
Thing is, the quest itself never seems to mirror the inner worlds of the human characters, thus readers are left with nothing to care about, other than the ominous mystery of the couch’s origin. Instead Parzybok’s characters run from one coincidence to the next, bumping into estranged fathers conveniently commanding guerrilla forces, sexy reporters who happen upon them in Ecuador despite astronomical odds, and don’t even get me started on the extremely forthright collector who the three questers stumble upon in the middle of the jungle.
What Parzybok seems to forget is that too many coincidences can easily muddle character development and irreparably damage a compelling plot, even if the story involves magic. Yes, Parzybok may address the question of magic within our technological society, but his narrative is never bold enough to risk answers, rather only safe enough to acknowledge the question. Just as his main character Thom says, “Let’s think for a minute, let’s be sane, let’s theorize. Let’s just for a minute take it for granted that this is a magical couch…First of all, we’d have to admit the presence of magic in a world that is generally devoid of it.”
At times, and rather simplistically, Parzybok does use some of his characters to hate on science, while celebrating the mystical. For instance, a collector named Per says, “It’s going to take science the next five hundred years to track down the curing properties of the jungle plants that the natives have used for the last five hundred years…The knowledge is lost because science came in like a blind rhino at a domino tournament,” as though science has no merit whatsoever, which is a greatly juvenile perspective on the matter. Still, Parzybok never allows his characters to find a balance between these two concepts, nor seriously debate this issue in even personal thoughts, which suggests he himself isn’t confident on the issue at hand.
All this for what? A mere nod to the fantastical in the age of modern science? What could have made Parzybok’s Couch a huge success would have been a conclusion about imagination, an assertion about our creativity, an intensely honest portrayal of our collective need for the miraculous, instead of an over-simplified rehashing of belief’s conflicting nature. Later on, Thom even states, “There are just too many questions. This was easier when I didn’t believe it, but believing opens up a bottomless crevasse of mystery.” Obviously, but what mysteries does believing in magic open up exactly? And more importantly, where does belief lead us within our contemporary world, where couches literally envelop our fates? Talk about a missed opportunity to satirize Western civilization.
However, though Parzybok sometimes jars readers with repeated haphazard coincidences and never risks offering his own opinion on the nature of modern belief, there is an odd sense of irony to Couch as well. All comfy in your recliner or bed cracking open this book, you start to become aware of your own laziness, devouring sentence after sentence, somehow unable to act, distracted by the combination of knowledge and comfort. Think about it—whenever we’re reading, we’re always, at least symbolically, sitting on the couch, escaping from reality for a time, forgetting our responsibilities. A very effective irony indeed, but one without a powerful message, one without a call to action.
A fun adventure with a seductive premise, Parzybok’s debut Couch may capture the zaniness and frustration of magic in the modern world, but leaves a wealth of potential topics and literary expression untapped, suffering conceptually as a result.