Extraordinary Means by Donna Levin (Arbor House; $17.95; 271 pages).
In a Northern California suburb named Alta Vista, there lives the upper-middle-class, urban-Jewish Silverstein family. Jonathan, the father, has been raised in "imagined poverty"; now real estate deals are his life. Back in the dim past, Jonathan had a chance to marry Alison, a very well-groomed woman who speaks in an invented accent, neither of the East nor of the West: "Motha. You might at least ect happy to see me."
Instead, Jonathan married Alison's sister--of whom more later--and they had four children; the kind of children who give their parents bad dreams and dark thoughts.
There's Daniel, 22, heavily into cocaine, effeminate, a mewling mama's boy who wears Italian suits, swishes when he walks and has just squandered $20,000 from a business loan on drugs and parties.
Rumpus Room Parties
There's Becky, 16, and Leah, 15, who both go to Alta Vista High and give parties in the rumpus room, even as their older sister lies in the hospital in an irreversible coma: "At a 'Beckianleah' party, the following events are likely to occur: Someone throws up in the toilet; someone else throws up in the backyard because the toilet is being used; a young person loses his or her virginity; such unforgettable libations as tequila and Dr Pepper are served; somebody steals somebody's boyfriend and somebody else sells marijuana at a discount price. . . . There was the time that Kari Hoffman tried to slash her wrists in the bedroom with the razor blade she'd been using to chop her coke. . . ."
Attempted suicide? Isn't that just a little frowzy as a social pastime? The narrator here, Melissa, 24, the oldest sister, takes suicide as a social gesture in stride, because she's the one in the irreversible coma, having earlier drunk a couple of strong screwdrivers and taken a couple of Percodan and promptly suffered a stroke--all of this arising over an unseamly quarrel with her brother over who would get to live in the biggest bedroom with the view of the bay.
Now Melissa hovers in a no-man's land between life and death; unable to come back to life because her coma is, after all, irreversible; unable to die because she's on a respirator. Everyone in the family regrets this, of course.
They're perfectly willing to "leave Mel alone," as one sibling graciously puts it. But Jonathan, 25 years ago, didn't marry Alison; he married her sister instead, Elaina, a witch in neon lights, who has different plans for Melissa.
No 'Mother of the Year'
Elaina shapes up as the most narcissistic, shallow, dumb, trivial, dislikable mother on literary record. She refuses to get a job: "I didn't get married to work"; lets her maid take care of the house and kids, sleeps until 11:30 every morning, talks baby talk to one and all, behaves seductively to her poor son--lolling about on beds with him, calling him "Danababble"--but then she also calls Becky "Beckaleelee," and the doctor she's having an affair with "Dr. PeeWee Doll."
Once the opening conflicts here are established (will Jonathan, now that he's left Elaina over the court fight about pulling the plug on Melissa, take a chance with Alison who has that dopey accent? Will Daniel's theft of the $20,000 be found out, and will he ever learn to like girls? Will Becky and Leah, once they realize they both have a crush on the same boy at Alta Vista High School, be able to salvage their peculiar relationship as sisters?), there's not much to do with the middle of the book but turn it into a kind of a screwball comedy, very much like the two novels on "being invisible" that have already come out this season.
By throwing a drink on her younger brother, Melissa's spirit finishes up their quarrel about the bedroom. From her coma, Melissa can zoom into people's minds and back out again. She even gets to see her mother in bed with the moron-doctor she's seduced. In short, Melissa can make mischief like a regular ghost; she's also able to find out family secrets (and complicate them) like the curious troublemaker she always was.
One of these three novels (the two on being invisible, or this one on living in a coma), would make a nice movie. It's pleasant to get revenge, and something in these stupid visual sight gags is very satisfying to the reader.
Ultimately, "Extraordinary Means" falls under the fried rabbit theory of contemporary literature. It's possible not to like this book very much, even while realizing the artistry that went into it, and remembering that lots and lots of people might pick this one as their very first choice.