Sept/Oct/Nov 2010

Pretty Vacant

Justin Taylor

"At twenty-six, Karl Floor had had a hard life: father dead, mother dead, stepdad sick and mean, siblings none, friends none, foes so offhanded in their molestations that they did not make a crisp enough focal point for his energies."

This is the first sentence of You Were Wrong, Matthew Sharpe's fourth novel, which features on its cover a photograph of what appears to be a station wagon hurtling off a cliff but is actually a toy car going off the corner edge of a table. Karl Floor is a man who, like Bartleby, would prefer not to. Unlike Bartleby, however, Karl is probably going to anyway, if he absolutely has to, though he'll put it off as long as he can—and then drag his feet. As the book opens, he is begrudgingly—and poorly—fulfilling a deathbed promise to his mother to look after his stepfather; for this, he will inherit the house when stepdad's time comes.

As you might have noticed above, Sharpe, whose previous books include The Sleeping Father (2002) and Jamestown (2007), writes prose that is mellifluous and lucid; his wise writing, with its offbeat rhythms and casual swerves, merits rank with that of George Saunders, Jim Shepard, and perhaps a (much) less bilious Sam Lipsyte, whose latest creation, The Ask's Milo Burke, is surely the new gold standard for severe underachievers in American letters. Line by line, You Were Wrong is deft, lively, and surprising: a practically faultless book.

And yet as the lines, pages, scenes, and chapters gather, so does the reader's sense of disquiet, then outright frustration. Stuff is piling up, but it's not adding up, which I suppose can be read as an extra layer of irony—Karl works as a high school math teacher—but that doesn't make it OK. The novel features several brutal acts of violence (including Karl getting beaten up by two of his own students), much driving back and forth between Brooklyn and Long Island, a baffling subtheme that attempts to treat race, lots of relationship stuff, a running gag about a lost hat that may or may not be an homage to the Dude's lost rug in The Big Lebowski, and a marvelous supporting cast: the mysterious "burglar" Sylvia Vetch; her sinister boyfriend, Stony Stonington; Stony's henchman, Arv; and Floor's stepdad himself, the irrepressible Larchmont Jones. So why do I find myself unable to shake the feeling of having read a book in which exactly nothing happens?

The problem is Karl, who "wondered how many of his misapprehensions of the world the world had the patience and resources to correct." Several, it will turn out, but as the construction of this sentence makes succinctly clear, credit for these various reckonings with reality belongs to the teacher rather more than to the student. At one point, Karl dreams he is visited by an eagle that rips his heart out of his chest and exchanges it with its own. It's a powerful and arresting scene, perhaps the best in the book, but what to make of a protagonist whose finest hour is played out flat on his back, utterly passive and victimized even in his own dreams? Perhaps his vision will galvanize him, make him "eagle-hearted"? Hardly. His new heart is described only as a "bloody little bird one"; the transaction seems to have been zero-sum.

Of course, one cannot expect too much from a character named Floor. And hey, I understand the allure of High Listlessness as much as the next straight white twenty-first-century American male age eighteen to thirty-four. Moreover, it is only right and proper that a novel dedicated "To 2008" should be about feeling powerless, impoverished, blindsided by malevolent forces, and (look out, there's a pun coming) walked all over. But even with all that in mind, the one idea I keep returning to is that the phrase "did not make a crisp enough focal point for his energies" seems to apply to Sharpe qua Karl at least as much as it does to Karl qua Karl's enemies.

Still, Sharpe seems too competent to justify my chalking things entirely up to authorial blunder. In its bizarrely muted way, You Were Wrong is a novel of high precision. Everything about it feels meticulous, deliberate—it wants to be read as a shaggy-dog story, but it's as fastidiously arranged as a model home. I think about how I initially misunderstood the cover art ("You were wrong," the title reminds me, helpfully) and find myself wondering about whole layers of symbolism and realms of deep meaning that I might simply have missed. If they're there, it's an open question on whom the blame for my missing them should fall: Sharpe, me, both of us?

Another possibility is that my experience of Karl—as an exasperating, man-shaped occlusion slouching between me and an otherwise exciting novel—was an intentionally provoked mimesis of Karl's fundamental experience of himself. Considered this way, there can be no doubt that the novel succeeds, though it's a strange success, one easily mistaken for its opposite. Stranger still is a novel that leaves a reader—this reader, anyway—disappointed even as it confirms him unequivocally as a fan of its author.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever (Harper Perennial, 2010) and has a novel forthcoming in 2011.