July 2010

James Tate Hill

fiction

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst

In Carolyn Parkhurst’s 2003 debut, The Dogs of Babel, a grief-stricken widower tries to teach his dog to talk, hoping to solve the mystery of his wife’s death. The idea was so enticing and so perfectly executed that fans of the novel had to worry, like fans of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, another novel released that year with a dog and a mystery at its center, about the author’s chances of living up to such promise. Was it the perfect story or was it perfectly told? Is there a difference?  

Parkhurst’s 2006 follow-up, Lost and Found, went a long way toward answering that question. That novel shifts points of view between increasingly desperate contestants on a reality game show similar to The Amazing Race, and though a bit schematic and less resonant than her debut, Lost and Found is an enjoyable read, showcasing much of the same storytelling that made Babel so gripping; Parkhurst had acquitted herself nicely, as they say. 

With The Nobodies Album, her third novel, Parkhurst manages much more than an acquittal. Part murder mystery, part meditation on memory, loss, motherhood, and art, The Nobodies Album is the most ambitious of her three novels. On display is her consistent sense of story, but also a structure bordering on experimental. The novel shares its title with the just finished manuscript of its protagonist, successful novelist Octavia Frost, on her way to present the pages to her editor. Her Nobodies Album is a collection of revised endings of all her previous novels, and Octavia is certainly aware of the metaphorical implications. The title, too, comes from a childhood expression of Octavia’s estranged rock star son, a relationship she’d love nothing more than to amend. She might get the chance, though not the way a mother would hope; not long after arriving in New York, news breaks that the famous Milo Frost has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. 

Octabia’s estrangement from Milo is linked to her writing, a line in one of her novels that wonders a little too frankly about how things might have turned out. Years ago, when Milo was nine, he lost his father and sister, Octavia’s husband and daughter, a tragedy from which the two haven’t thoroughly recovered. Octavia follows her son’s life and career from the distance afforded by the Internet. Milo is the famous front man of Pareidolia, a word Milo’s mother taught him, “the human tendency to find meaning where there is none.” The band’s songs are at least meaningful enough, or accessible enough, to have garnered a large following; they seem popular on the level of a Coldplay or a Green Day. After Octavia arrives in San Francisco, she meets with Joe, Milo’s childhood friend and Pareidolia bandmate, who says Milo doesn’t want to see her. Joe does, however, have a gift for the mother of his best friend, on whom he might have had a teenage crush. He has brought her a sugar bowl to replace the one he had broken so many years ago, but it’s what’s inside that piques her interest: a folded slip of paper with the words “Someone is lying.” 

Even now, in the city where Milo lives, Octavia has to follow the case on TV and the Internet, a process Parkhurst richly and convincingly imagines, the offerings ranging from fan fiction to an episode of Turf Wars, a Cribs-style show providing a tour of the home Milo shared with the late Bettina Moffett. But soon Octavia receives a call from Joe’s girlfriend, Chloe, who won’t so easily take Milo’s no for an answer. Out on bail, Milo is staying with his mentor, Roland Nysmith, one of those few celebrities who’s managed "the curious transformation from tight-trousered rebel to elder statesman without stumbling into the murk of self-parody.” When they arrive at Roland’s mansion, Milo is in tears, unable to recall how he might have ended up with Bettina’s blood on his hands that night. Desperate, exhausted, he reaches for his mother as soon as she enters the room, beginning their complex reunion. 

Chloe, of course, has her own reasons for contacting Octavia Frost, one of many strands that will tangle and untangle itself over the course of the novel. Like any good mystery, Parkhurst offers us suspects without ever calling them such, all the while maintaining suspense through the novel’s unique structure. The present action is broken up with excerpts from Octavia’s novels, the original endings and the revisions included in her latest book. The interstitial passages are short enough to keep the wind in the sails of the present action, but they are inevitably less welcome than the chapters that move the story forward. Octavia’s work, even more than most writers, borrows from and comments on her own life, but one also cannot take them as literal retellings. Ultimately they are not unlike songs, whose pleasures come less from meaning than music. On one level, the excerpts work, and the reader is appreciative of the thoroughly imagined history, literary and personal, with which Parkhurst has imbued her protagonist. Yet they also feel unnecessary, as only a few are required to fill in the emotional holes. 

The Nobodies Album succeeds as a mystery, but also as a work of psychological realism, and in the end it’s the latter in which the author is more interested. By the time the mystery is solved, we’re as grateful for the smaller moments that have revealed character as we are for the clues that have led to the plot’s resolution. Parkhurst specializes in the quiet truths that emerge from chaos and tragedy. She is a writer of undeniable literary talent, concerned with meaning and character and all that good stuff, but she also tells one hell of a story. 

The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
Doubleday
ISBN: 0385527691
320 Pages