April 2005

fiction

The Wasp Eater by William Lychack

Modern Americans have become voyeurs to the most intimate of troubled relationships, thanks to the glut of reality television and the Jerry Springer Show. Confrontation, whether it is loud arguing or fists flying, is a necessary component of entertainment derived from watching others suffer. In literature, the lack of confrontation between characters in a novel can either be the author's use of artistic expression or his wanting to invoke a sense of injustice. In The Wasp Eater, this fine-as-cobwebs first novel from William Lychack is the story of a family broken apart in the 1970s due to the father's infidelities, viewed mostly from the perspective of the quiet ten-year-old son, Daniel. Anna has caught her husband Bob cheating and, while he is out, changes the locks, tosses his belongings on the lawn and theatrically hangs his clothing on trees in front of the house. The 21st century reader prepares for some sort of showdown -- but it doesn't happen. Over the course of the novel Bob makes futile attempts at reuniting the family and undoing the damage that he has wrought, in his own insensitive, swaggering way.

From the start, Anna does not confide in and barely connects with her son -- and sadly for the rest of the novel never does. In fact, neither of the parents take comfort in nor offer comfort to Daniel during difficult times, but rather fight for ownership of him back and forth throughout the book. "Leaving" is a constant theme in this story -- characters walking away, driving away, spotting someone and deliberately avoiding them and potential conflict. But one aspect of the novel bears down like a magnifying glass: the attention to particular details, expressed via delicate, hypnotic prose, is the strongest element of the novel. In fact, the closest we get to the characterization of the family members is through analogies to objects:

[His mother] was the bedroom and the living room and the L-shape of the kitchen, its sink and stove and cans of food. She was every pillow and piece of furniture in the house... [his father] was the car in the street, just as he was the street itself, the back roads, the towns beyond... Daniel took whatever was left -- the attic and the basement... the moldy damp and underdog corners of the house, the slant of roof... he was what no one else wanted to be -- the dust, the dirt, the tindery heat upstairs, the dead wasps at the screens.

Such careful attention to objects is in direct contrast to the elephant in the room -- the dissolution of the family that no one will directly address. The lifeblood of the story is in the words. Love in this novel is hardly expressed between the characters, but given rather generously by the narrator towards Nature and objects. In the language itself is the fond caress, the tearful embrace, the fragile smile that Daniel never encounters.

The formality of the novel gives it a more conservative 1950s feel, rather than 1979. It is filled with moments when an emotional connection could happen, but doesn't. The build up of things left unsaid becomes repetitive and tiring, until the location change towards the end of the novel, which is a refreshing distraction. This is not a novel about forgiveness or of boyhood innocence lost. There is no satisfying sense of justice served. However, the narrator's acute sensitivity towards place makes this a novel worth reading, if solely for the experience of words beautifully woven together.

The Wasp Eater by William Lychack
Houghton Mifflin
ISBN: 0618302441
164 pages