[8 February 2009]
Although he ages 30 years over the course of the novel, in reality, Gabe, narrator of The Sky Below, remains a fragile, but deeply perceptive young boy from start to finish. Stacey D’Erasmo’s protagonist is both uncannily introspective and bleakly unaware, a dichotomy that is perhaps the novel’s most compelling aspect. It is Gabe’s vacant, almost delirious over-sharing that makes the book such an addictive read. His emotional pain is self-indulgent, yet for most of the book his self-pity is subtly presented with a mix of clear narrative and sub-textual self-loathing.
The book begins with young Gabe living an idyllic life with his family in Massachusetts. He is closer with his mother, who reads him Greek myths, and seems to see his father only in shadows. The distance between the father and son is sharp but not intense—Gabe seems willing to accept that his father is a stranger—until he moves out. Only then does Gabe’s obsession begin to mount, probably a result of the effect the relationship has on his mother, whose compulsive tendencies captivate her son. Gabe watches intently as his mother sends her absent husband letter after unanswered letter. Only when the family is forced to move to Florida and his mother must go to work as a hotel manager does Gabe’s personal misery begin to unfold.
It is, in fact, childish selfishness that motivates Gabe. His surroundings have changed and he perceives that if his father returns, all will be well again. But in D’Erasmo’s world, Gabe’s dissatisfaction and fear become transcendentally epic. Gabe’s thinking comes across not as childish or simple but rather as strikingly twisted. His obsessiveness inspires the same feeling in the reader.
While having a father leave is not something that makes an American child unique by any means, in D’Erasmo’s hands, Gabe’s warped psyche attains a swirling, mythic quality. D’Erasmo’s greatest skill as a writer is her ability to make magic out of the mundane. Gabe’s imaginative forces stem not from his desire to escape reality, but from a piercingly palpable refusal to accept bald truths. He is the ultimate skeptic without being a cynic; the lines of his perceptions and the reality of his world run parallel throughout the novel, forming a gaping wind tunnel of mysticism and ambiguity.
It is the ethereal prose that prevents us from judging Gabe for his self-absorption, but the plot suffers from being entirely dependent on it. Throughout the book, Gabe mistreats his loved ones, neglects his jobs, and commits crimes ranging from petty theft to breaking and entering to blackmail. He does these things without a flicker of doubt or remorse, reactions which to be fair, would probably weigh down D’Erasmo’s phantasmic, light prose. To her credit, she weaves us into Gabe’s world; his vision is so myopic that we must be fully on board with his worldview. But Gabe’s feverish and depressive feeling that life has no meaning seeps into the plot line. The reader is left with the same feeling about the novel.
The story, although beautifully written, has a lack of raison d’etre that becomes increasingly frustrating as the book goes on. Gabe lives in an era that we have just moved out of—the staggering and stilted post 9-/11 New York. Given the current global financial crisis and recent inauguration, Gabe’s particular story and plight seems a bit stale. At the same time, Gabe has a unique collection of experiences.
His day job is as obituary writer at a dwindling, unsuccessful paper, but he also works as a ghostwriter for a famed author of scandalous romance novels who is succumbing to illness and debilitated in the wake of a stroke. While many New Yorkers were unsatisfied and lost after the attack, Gabe replaces the lost towers by obsessing to a degree of unhealthiness over a house in Brooklyn. Gabe himself seems far more complex than the crisis supposedly causing his behavior.
When Gabe is confronted with an actual illness, not much changes from a literary or emotional standpoint. This unnerving consistency is a testament to how well D’Erasmo knows her character. Like Gabe, the reader is forever nagged by discomfort, dissatisfaction and a searing sense of disconnectedness. Gabe’s lyrical mysteriousness and fear of self-knowledge are far more compelling than the storyline itself. And unfortunately, that lack of storyline prevents the novel from ever achieving the moment of catharsis one would expect from a novel incorporating themes from a Greek myth.
To that end, Gabe journey to find himself at the end of the book is perhaps an overreach on the part of the author. Her gift is taking the ordinary and making it magnificent. When Gabe ends up in a veritable alternate world, her imaginative powers are still present, but they are not as compelling as they were as a lens for the bleak reality of New York City. The plot always seemed secondary to Gabe’s pursuit of myth, but all the carefully constructed elements seem to fall out of whack in the final quarter of the book.