Mistrust a character who is larger than life. Billboards are larger than life too, and much emptier.
There are times in Mona Simpson's remarkably gifted first novel when the continual surging of her protagonist, Adele, arouses some such feeling. To voice it is to charge the wave. And after voicing it, this reviewer finds himself up-ended and lifted far up the beach.
Living in a small Wisconsin town, Adele makes off across country with her second husband's white Lincoln Continental and credit card, and her 12-year-old daughter, Ann. Her objective is show-business for Ann, and Beverly Hills and the fabled good life for both of them.
Adele is the flimflam woman of the year, lighting up and blighting whatever she touches. Years before, she ruined her older sister Carol's wedding by spending the whole time in the one bathroom, thus forcing the 150 guests to squeeze home early. On the road and in California, she is a mixture of Auntie Mame, Blanche Dubois and Willy Loman. She is avid and fretful, fiery and frail, credulous and tricky, unstoppable and never arriving. Under Adele's dazzlement, and the disconcerting precision with which Simpson handles a wealth of detail about Midwestern small towns, the slummy edges of Beverly Hills glamour, and a varied range of American lives and pseudo-lives, she does two big things.
One is to anchor her story securely to a real theme. Like Sam Shepard's "Curse of the Starving Class," though with vastly different means, "Anywhere but Here" tells of the famished underside of our culture of glamour and success.
Drifting from one small job to another, Adele insists on living in ramshackle quarters to be inside the Beverly Hills High School district, where Ann can make useful friends and connections. They are obsessed with food and often go without. When they have a little money, she and Ann eat cold steak right out of the ice box; when they don't, they subsist on ice cream, the symbol of instant well-being and nutritional disaster.
The second big accomplishment is artistic. Adele is the most conspicuous thing in the book but not the most important. Colorful, funny and alarming, she is a feint, a diversion. Under the fireworks, something else is happening. Ann, the narrator, is watching, learning, growing up, growing tough and breaking away.
Her "I," seemingly overshadowed, is the book's real force. She is not omniscient and not aloof. She is dazzled by her mother and fights her. She knows that Adele's fantasies about a series of affluent lovers are so many ships that unfailingly sink as they come in. They are holed at the waterline. Yet when one of the putative lovers, a psychiatrist, confirms that Adele's affair with him is imaginary, Ann feels something collapse inside her.
As wild in her own way as her mother, Ann fights a child's underground battle to survive; and wins it. Adele's dream of getting her into show business comes true. At an audition, Ann puts on a display of hysterical energy, very much like Adele's, in fact. It impresses a producer and she becomes a minor TV star. The audition was secured--just as her mother had counted on--by a Beverly Hills connection. The terrible thing, in fact, about Adele's cloudy visions and relentless struggling is that they sometimes work.
Simpson makes the scatty cloud-battling of Adele's and Ann's lives grotesque, funny and bitingly real. But she is not engaged in easy judgment. Into their story, she inserts episodes from the lives of Adele's family back in Wisconsin.
Taken by themselves, Adele's and Ann's choices seem tinselly and foolish. Taken in contrast to what they have left behind, the matter is not so simple. Simpson's vision is very dark. Love, hope and a decent and humane life are as elusive in the old America as in the new one.
"Anywhere but Here" has its flaws. The interweaving of the Wisconsin and the California episodes is sometimes awkward. It is important for us to get fed up with Adele's hysterical beguilements, so we can see Ann better; but even so, it might have helped to curtail her a little.
But the book's rich texture and its ingenious tracking of our far-fetched normalities mark Simpson as a brightly talented new writer. Something deeper and more exciting than bright talent is suggested by the stony pain of Carol's narration, and by subtle variations of Ann's outbursts and silences, with their light and a few terrible shadows.