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'You Were Wrong' by Matthew Sharpe

Sharpe's surprising turns of phrase make his awkward math teacher's passage through life worthwhile.

September 17, 2010|By Carolyn Kellogg, Los Angeles Times

Karl Floor is awkward, a 26-year-old who slips through the world at a strange angle. His perceptions are singular, off-kilter: a poorly played piano piece is "like a high school marching band tromping back and forth on the balding patch of grass next to the faculty parking lot."

It's the last bit — not just the parking lot, but the faculty parking lot — that distinguishes Matthew Sharpe's voice. He's able to take a metaphor one or three steps further than expected, sparking surprise and, often, laughter.

In his last novel, " Jamestown," Sharpe retold the 17th-century Jamestown Colony story in a post-apocalyptic setting; his rhetorical skills turned starvation, sickness and brutal violence into a shockingly funny narrative. His protagonists were alienated, removed from their debased circumstances with the help of heaps of smart, fanciful metaphors and imaginative spins of language.

Sharpe's latest novel, "You Were Wrong," employs this voice but takes place in a much more familiar world. Floor, a high school math teacher, is beaten by two students in the first pages and, in a daze, wanders home to the suburban house he shares with Larchmont "Monty" Jones, his domineering stepfather. There he comes upon a lithe woman, Sylvia, who says she's robbing the place.

Woozy from the beating, with no friends to speak of, both his real parents dead and an abiding hatred of Monty, Karl decides he might as well give Sylvia a hand. And so his life changes: He meets her friends Arv and Stony, men who may or may not be ill-willed; he is propelled to challenge Monty. He swiftly, viscerally, falls for Sylvia, but she feints and pulls.

All of it is, to Karl, hard to sort out; everything remains at a remove. "Karl slipped into the little raincoat-material tent and semi-disrobed and slid into the borrowed sleeping bag that had a mushroomy Arv smell around which Karl hastily hammered together a rickety fence of inattention," Sharpe writes.

Given the circumstances, such inattention is understandable, but it's a near-constant state. Karl often tunes out conversations that might explain what's happening, and he seems ready only to take in the world in fragments. In fact, the other characters repeatedly point out that he's not quite getting it.

While the book's jacket describes Karl as "dim," I don't think that's quite right. Instead, he's so deeply alienated that he can't fully engage; he lets some things pass by that he shouldn't, while deeply feeling and considering others that only he might absorb.

Yet Karl's lack of perceptiveness, or his unique focus, presents a conundrum: There's a plot in the background, but he can't see it. So it's hard to feel a pulse propelling the pages forward, other than the mystery of what it might be that he didn't get.

There is hope that he might get the girl, but Sharpe's considerable skills may not be well-suited for telling a love story. The two clean a kitchen together: "In inventing a new design for object positioning, and therefore also for the way bodies move through homes, they would remake the very concept of home, and remake the possibilities for boy-girl contact and connection. It was possible, it was possible to become someone new in this way, not just new to oneself but new to the world, to bring into the human sphere feelings that had not existed before...." Romantic sonnet it's not.

As Karl moves awkwardly through his world, it's the pleasure of Sharpe's surprising turns of phrase that make the passage worthwhile. Hopefully, next time, this gifted comic novelist will cast his gaze on stronger material.

carolyn.kellogg@latimes.com

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