Books

Road Trip Stories Offer Few Options: Keep Driving, Return Home, Drive Off a Cliff

The Melting Season has its moments. The problem is that it’s hard to tell if Attenberg intends those moments to be comical or poignant


The Melting Season

Publisher: Riverhead
Length: 289 pages
Author: Jami Attenberg
Price: $25.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2010-01
Amazon

I first discovered Jami Attenberg back when the website Nerve was still publishing fiction. Attenberg was a refreshing powerhouse. Here was a writer who was sharp but not too sharp, someone who was able to capture a mood and images just so. Her characters were muddled young women complicated by their vulnerability and strength. They harbored that old longing to connect and that longing expressed itself mostly through sex and the sex offered up some unexpected insights.

The Melting Season, Attenberg’s second novel, attempts to bring those qualities into a sustained piece of fiction. Catherine Madison is muddled for sure. She’s a sheltered young woman on the run with a suitcase full of her estranged husband’s cash. Catherine’s running from just about everything: broken marriage, broken family and broken life. The theft and road trip that lands Catherine in Las Vegas brims with potential, especially since Catherine is captive to both her fears and emotional numbness. Las Vegas offers dazzle and wantonness and just plain old release, and while these things happen in varying degrees in the story, they stop short of being fully realized.

The novel starts with Catherine explaining how she began taking her husband’s money little by little. Just something to comfort her through the long Nebraska winter. Then she decides to take all of it. “And there was nothing left to do afterward but get the hell out of town.” Catherine barely arrives in Las Vegas when she develops a sudden and intense friendship with Valka, a cancer survivor with her own story. Valka is the one who initiates Catherine into forbidden territory of feelings. We see this when Valka offers to show Catherine her bald head, a move that Catherine rightly interprets as an opportunity to bond with another person.

In her short fiction, Attenberg creates broken but not completely destroyed young women. Here, Catherine’s not so much destroyed as she is flat. Her defining characteristics are her long blond hair and inability to feel. Unfortunately a character’s inability to feel seeps into other areas of the story, and it’s not so good when the character who can’t feel is the one telling us the story. We trust Catherine’s telling us the truth but since we know she’s skimming the surface of things we also know that we’re missing out on a lot.

The Melting Season has its moments. The problem is that it’s hard to tell if Attenberg intends those moments to be comical or poignant. Things like Catherine and Thomas getting married right out of high school. Or Thomas' tiny penis that is supposedly transformed during penile implant surgery. Or the transgender Prince impersonator who Catherine meets and maybe sleeps with in Vegas.

The same missed opportunities can be said of the characters who mirror Catherine’s flatness and fall right into clichés. There’s the bitter, drunken mother, the slutty little sister and Catherine’s own man-child husband. I kept waiting for Attenberg to up the intensity on these characters, to add layers and shades. When it didn't happen I wondered if she had been encouraged to play it safe to appeal to a more mainstream, commercial audience.

Attenberg’s writing does shine through and she has some lovely bits like, “Up above I could see the Milky Way. Inside, my husband rubbed his fingers against the lids of his eyes until he saw stars.” Or when Catherine studies her reflection in the hotel mirror: “The bones below my neck stuck out like a picked over chicken wing. Once I was pretty. I would be again someday.”

The tragedy of this character is that many of the secrets she guards so fiercely are not really her secrets at all. Once Catherine spills them she is forced into action. But by then much of the story’s momentum is lost. There’s nowhere new or especially interesting for the characters or story to go.

In the end, most stories that feature a road trip offer only a few options. You can keep driving, return home, or drive off a cliff. In Catherine’s case there’s really only one choice. I wasn’t rooting for Catherine on those last few pages. She’s right where we expected her to be. I am rooting for Attenberg, though. I say, next time, let it ride. Don’t play it safe. Bring us right over that edge.

5

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less
3

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less
9

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image