Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Sleeping Father

Review of Matthew Sharpe’s novel The Sleeping Father; Toronto Star, sometime in 2004. One good thing about putting all this old stuff here is that it’s made me realize I give in far too often to a certain rhetorical tic: a series of consecutive sentence fragments, set off by “Or” or “And,” to list characters or elements of a book. Must stop that.

The reception of Matthew Sharpe’s newest book must gladden indie publishers across the land. The New York author has previously published a short-story collection and a novel with imprints of the Random House empire. But his biggest success has come with the tiny New York house Soft Skull Press, which released The Sleeping Father early this year. That novel has become a sleeper hit, propelled by strong reviews and word-of-mouth and an appearance on the Today Show’s TV book club.

The buzz is understandable. In his tale of a Connecticut family in crisis, Sharpe creates awkward, stress-jangled characters, sets them in an up-to-the-minute social context, and watches them collide, maintaining throughout a strict dedication to the reader’s enjoyment.

The crisis-beset family is the Schwartzes, as singular in their misery as anything Tolstoy could have imagined when he set out his famous aphorism about each unhappy family being unique. Mother Lila has fled to California after multiple infidelities; depression-addled father Bernard spends much of the novel in a coma after a prescription mixup; teenage son Chris is a high-school misfit with the gift of irritating everyone around him; and teenage daughter Cathy has renounced her family’s Judaism in a quest to Catholicize herself.

That the above paragraph is absurdly reductive is a compliment to the book. Too many novels rely on one easily summarized defining dilemma per character, but the foibles of the Schwartz family intersect and multiply in unpredictable ways, and their wobbly orbits pull in intriguing secondary characters. Like Lisa Danmeyer, an ambitious neurologist with some daddy issues who indulges Chris in a weird battle of wills. Or Frank Dial, Chris’s sole friend from high school; their relationship is complicated by race (“Frank was one of five blacks matriculated at the Bellwether High School for Upper Middle Class Caucasians”), vague homoerotic yearnings, and, eventually, Frank’s feelings for Cathy.

The Sleeping Father is primarily a black comedy, and the book is an unfailingly fun read. Sharpe’s narrative voice is snappy but not quite smarmy, and at its best and most confrontational, the dialogue hums electric. In structure, too, the book is eager to please: while the scenes and situations are mostly domestic in nature, Sharpe builds suspense thriller-style, with quick scene changes and 59 short chapters.

On the downside, the author apparently believes that he must drop a bravura apercu into every paragraph to keep readers impressed. A line like “Each of them gave [their grandfather] a kiss, which meant penetrating with their faces the almost tactile bolus of smoke that encased his head” is wonderful, but nearly every scene is rendered at the same pitch – which means that the tone becomes monochromatic and those glittering one-liners lose a bit of their patina. Also, Sharpe’s guiding hand can sometimes be too easily discerned behind the speech of the characters. Chris, Frank, and Cathy occasionally veer toward the kind of hyper-articulate teenspeak that invites mockery when we see it on TV shows.

Still, Sharpe’s willingness to pursue surface effects accounts for much of The Sleeping Father’s appeal. The book’s third-person narration jumps among various points of view but also encompasses an omniscient voice. That voice pokes fun at the characters: “Cathy made a gesture at her brother that was definitely not a sign of the cross.” It renders lyrical their raw feelings: “Walking so lightly in the world was a source of intense frustration for Chris.” It brazenly withholds information for dramatic effect: “Lisa Danmeyer … was speaking with someone she considered to be an ally at the hospital, a sympathetic ear.” In short, it does anything necessary to entertain for the moment.

That’s an untrendy approach, thought by many to be a relic of pre-modernism. But it can resonate with readers, as shown in the popularity of John Irving’s novels, or of Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. And unlike many others, Sharpe somehow pulls it off without sacrificing the novel’s emotional punch. I chuckled at the many contrivances in the telling of The Sleeping Father’s story, but I found that its characters and their problems long outlived the turning of the last page.

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