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'Living Room' by Rachel Sherman

Suburban angst is at the center of this debut novel, which looks beneath the surface of an unhappy family.

December 05, 2009|By Joanna Smith Rakoff

"Living Room," Rachel Sherman's bleak first novel, takes its title from the hang-out favored by the teens that populate the book. It is a clearing in the woods behind their Long Island high school equipped with a complete set of living room furniture -- sofa, chairs, rug, etc. -- which looks pristine from afar. Up close, the upholstery reeks of mold and soaks the clothes of anyone who dares to sit on it.

"It seems so strange that people ignore it," thinks the book's heroine, Abby, of the stench and damp upon first visiting this legendary spot, which figures prominently in the lore of the cool kids who have cautiously accepted her into their ranks. This duality -- the rot at the center of the red leather couch -- lends the title its lovely, if heavy-handed, metaphorical weight, for "Living Room" is a novel of suburban corruption -- a genre unto itself at this stage in American letters.

It's clear from the first page, when Abby is tapped by the pretty Jenna to serve as a sort of sidekick, that Abby, like so many earnest teen heroines before her, will be betrayed by her new friends, that she will compromise her innate sense of ethics in order to please them, that she'll fall in love with the secretly sensitive football player, that at least one of her parents will be revealed as a complete freak show, that some sort of tragedy will bring everything to a head, and that Abby will, of course, learn something about who she is and what she wants. Sherman perfectly nails the nuances of adolescent interaction: Her cold-eyed approach to her material and brisk, hard-boiled style neatly distracts the reader from the familiarity of the novel's plot.

"Living Room" takes place over the course of a week or so, tracking back and forth between Abby; her mother, Livia; and her ailing grandmother, Headie, who is all but a prisoner in her Pennsylvania home. While Abby chugs beer on her lawn, makes out with a lacrosse player, sneaks out her window to smoke and gets drawn into Jenna's dubious plan to secure a bottle of vodka for the next pep rally, the monstrously self-involved Livia consumes nausea-inducing quantities of junk food, nurses an inexplicable rage toward Abby's father, Jeffrey, a quiet lawyer, and plays at being a decorator.

Headie sends out chatty e-mail missives to her family -- "THEY ARE TALKING SNOW HERE ALREADY" -- but declines to mention that her main companions are a gaggle of dancing couples who mysteriously appear in her peripheral vision and that for weeks she's been crawling, rather than walking, around her house, as standing has come to seem like too much of an effort. "It suddenly occurred to her when she was down on the floor trying to pick up a piece of lint. Why get up only to sit back down?"

As she demonstrated in "The First Hurt," a memorable -- and truly disturbing -- collection of stories, Sherman is a writer attuned to grotesqueries of daily life. Her fictions play out as if under a magnifying glass, with each character's flaws -- both physical and psychological -- expanded a thousandfold, in a manner that recalls Mary Gaitskill and A.M. Homes. In "Living Room," as in those earlier stories, Sherman walks a careful line between stylized realism and caricature, sometimes veering too far toward the latter. While she draws Abby and Headie with tender precision, Livia reads more as a parody of baby boomer-style narcissism than a representation of an actual human being. She's shocked when no one but her therapist is interested in hearing detailed descriptions of her dreams and furious that Jeffrey actually expects her to look after Abby, even in the most basic way: in Abby's infancy, she plugged her ears and simply let the baby cry all day, until Jeffrey suggested that this might be, er, negligent.

Such heart-rending cruelties -- committed less out of hatred than a paucity of affection -- are of particular fascination to Sherman, whose project here seems to be, in part, to display the myriad ways in which we exist in a sort of ongoing psychic pain, endlessly inflicting emotional violence on those we ostensibly love best. This is, of course, perhaps the eternal subject of all domestic fiction -- from John Cheever to Rick Moody to Jonathan Franzen -- but Sherman's take on it proves particularly grim. There is, it's worth noting, another living room in the novel: the one in Abby's house. But no living occurs there, other than the occasional viewing of a reality television show. Abby, Livia and Jeffrey spend the few hours they're all at home together -- mornings and evenings -- locked away in their separate lairs, utterly, unhappily alone.

Smith Rakoff is the author of the novel "A Fortunate Age."

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