Saturday, September 3, 2011

Model Home

Warren Ziller is father to Dustin, an angry teenager in a punk band, Lyle, a teen girl desperate for love and excitement, and young Jonas, craving for attention. Warren has been keeping a secret from them and his wife, Camille. He has gone broke, investing all of their money into building homes in the desert. Unfortunately, nobody is buying these houses, and after a devastating accident, the family is forced to move into one of the empty model homes. There, the distance growing in the family explodes, sending everybody on their own paths.
Lyle was beginning to regret the whole evening. She'd invited Bethany because she hadn't wanted to show up alone, but now she saw that this was clearly a mistake. Bethany did not understand her persistent friendship with Shannon. Lyle had tried to explain it, but the truth is she did not understand it herself. It had something to do with Shannon's beauty. Not just the long, flattering, irresistible shadow it cast, but the loneliness hidden inside it like a pearl.
This is a scene from about two thirds of the way through this novel. This is a long passage, but it exists on its own as a paragraph in a larger work, culminating in that beautiful climax of a phrase referencing the pearl. It's author Eric Puchner's subtle skill with prose that makes this novel so good, and this paragraph shows that perfectly.

Puchner's obsessions with words and meanings and puns is apparent. Lyle, the well-read middle child, often thinks of things in terms of interesting words, such as the girl suffering from cerebral palsy, whose mouth is "ajar". There are many instances like this, where Puchner's love affair with words is foremost in the reader's mind.

I wanted to read this book because it seemed to check off boxes on my mental list of pet themes: disillusionment with suburbia, check - California, check - family saga, check - Franzen-esque navel gazing, check - white people problems, check. I'm being facetious, but a lot of these themes are important to me. The fiction I tend to write is similar in terms of content and theme. However, Puchner manages to avoid amateurish posturing or obvious signals of "hey, check it out I'm writing a novel here!". That is, until about the halfway point.

The novel's beginning is as strong as the end is weak. A horrific tragedy occurs, and the novel's timeline jumps ahead one year, so that we don't have to stagger through hundreds of pages of scenes set near hospital beds or physical therapy rooms. The eldest son gets burned by the family's house exploding and he becomes angry and bitter and an alcoholic, but the guilt that the parents feel allows this to happen. It's another checklist being ticked off, except this time, a literary checklist, of novels previously written that cover these same grounds.

While the prose remains beautiful and tight, the playfulness of the wording gets dropped in favour of pure plot. So much happens in the final third of the novel, and it's simply tedious. Model Home stops being about the disintegration of the modern family unit and becomes a plot driven Oprah's Book Club novel. Of course the youngest child runs away and of course he realizes the error of his ways when the hippies that pick him up are irresponsible and leave a baby unsupervised. It's all very obvious and tedious.

Which is a shame. The rest of the novel is quite good, especially Lyle's sexual awakening and development. The novel could have been focused only on the eldest son and Lyle, and it would have been altogether stronger. Puchner wants to focus on too many characters, but some of them are going to gt short shrift. I never got a sense of who Warren or Camille are as people. We're told they did cool things in their youth and struggled through school and pregnancies, but we get superficial surface details of their current life. There's an agonizing moment for the reader when Camille kisses a man who is not her husband, and the reader cries out, "this is interesting, why are you dropping this like a hot potato?"

Puchner writes to the beat of his own drum. A tighter focus on less characters would have greatly improved this novel. But that's not to say I didn't like this. Far from it. It's irresistibly readable and the prose is often succulent and ripe. It helps that Model Home really does capture a feeling of the disintegration of family, the drifting apart and the inability to recognize or identify with those you shared your life with. In portraying this, Puchner succeeds spectacularly.

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