I picked up Stephen Wright's second novel, "M31: A Family Romance," with the trepidation of one who cares not in the least for science fiction and who at the same time feels that he has been exposed to more "novels" about the anomie of the American family than there are available case histories to draw from.
I need not have worried on either score. "M31" is a novel of original and wide ambitions, largely achieved.
As it turns out, the book's title is more than apt. Wright has rescued from its own millenarian oblivion the language of UFO enthusiasts--at once hopeful, paranoid, reverent and silly--to bring to life a married pair of UFO evangelists and their extravagantly disturbed, and disturbing, family.
Dash and Dot, as Wright has wittily named this conjugal pair, live in a former country church now topped by a radar dish fruitlessly scanning the empty American heartland that surrounds it. Believing themselves descended from alien life-forms originating in the galaxy M31, the two earn their meager living beetling about the lecture sub-circuit--UFO conventions and radio talk shows--recounting their "contacts" with their extraterrestrial forebears. (Indeed, much of the book seems to play upon a wry literalization of that abracadabra word of late 20th-Century American life, "alienation.")
For the most part, however, Dash and Dot spend their time at home, presiding over the bizarre, incestuous "unit" that is their family: a psychotic teen-age son, an anorexic mother with matching child, a young woman ambiguously Dash's daughter and lover, a small boy named Edsel (whose ambition is to be happy when he grows up), and an artistic child whose hyperactive fits are seen by Dash as direct communications from the extraterrestrials. When a pair of young outsiders show up on the family's church step--true believers completing a pilgrimage--the hopes, beliefs, and self-deceptions of all concerned quickly begin to come undone. This climate of personal desperation is all it takes to pull to ruin the junk-myth structure on which the characters have variously built their lives, and the violence that ensues seems--not only to the reader but also in considerable measure to the characters themselves--inevitable.
Clearly the success and even the sense of a narrative like this one depends heavily on its tone, and here, as elsewhere in "M31," Wright usually manages to have it both ways: The extraordinary darkness of the book's humor takes lyricism, deeply felt, as its vehicle, and, rather more surprisingly, vice versa. At its best, this tactic reminds me not so much of Pynchon or DeLillo (both of whom Wright clearly reveres, even while lacking their complexity of purpose) as of the early John Hawkes ("Second Skin," "The Cannibal," "The Beetle Leg," etc.). Listen, for example, to this description of rock music heard on a pick-up truck's radio:
. . . Hammers on anvils, shattering tubes, the held, amplified note of a boy's choir, files on guitar strings . . . a quartet of chain saws, and the screeching of pterodactyls in a riotous stampede along a broken pulse to an unexpected precipice of silence in which one clear English voice recited harshly, "Twist my lemon, eat my head, crawl down the pipe, dead dead dead . . . .
"All right," shouted Dallas, "Vic and the Vectors! They're great!"
Unfortunately, Wright is not always in such firm control (if control is the word I want), and at its worst (as in the description of a small town of apparent mutants) the narrative falls into something like the literary equivalent of a bad episode from the old "Twilight Zone" TV series.
There are other problems. For someone so language-conscious, Wright seems singularly unaware of what a potent tool point-of-view can be. He switches vantage apparently unconsciously, sometimes entering the mind of a given character for only a line or two after a couple of hundred pages. Such switches can, of course, work--and work magnificently--but they must be accomplished strategically.
Mostly, though, it is heartening to see an American writer work his imagination so unremittingly. (It's worth pointing out, for example, that Wright's widely noticed first novel, "Meditations in Green," was set in Vietnam; here, clearly, is an author who refuses to repeat himself simply to satisfy market needs.) If there is autobiography here, or slapped down "dialogue verite" or (shudder) "self-expression," it is doubtful that even the author is aware of it. And if Wright's reach occasionally exceeds his grasp, so much the better in this era of literary mumbling. It is hard to resist the urge to demand still more from a gifted writer whose standards are already so obviously and excitingly high.