Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski
Both the protagonist narrator and the deuteragonist of Mark Wisniewski's new novel Show Up, Look Good suffer from airway maladies -- Michelle, the mid-thirties narrator, from asthma, and Ernest, the former Yankee with whom she becomes entangled, from terminal lung cancer. Their afflictions appropriately reflect the extent to which Wisniewski's novel futilely gasps for air.
Show Up, Look Good, narrated entirely by Michelle, begins with discovering her fiance frantically making love to a rubberized vagina rather than her own, on account of the fact that she "thinks too much." Her response is to abandon both the engagement and her native town of Kankakee, Illinois (pop. 26,840) for the bright lights of Manhattan. The move feels tired from the start, and the fact that no mention is made of any of her friends or family in Kankakee, a job or career she leaves behind, or what exactly possessed a woman of thirty-four suddenly to leave all she's ever known over a seemingly reparable fissure in her relationship doesn't help. In the course of the novel these details get shakily sketched in, but straining a reader's credulity within the first five pages seems a risky authorial move, to say the least.
The account of Michelle's journey from Kankakee to New York -- a drive of 820 miles according to Google Maps -- is described in exactly one sentence. Upon arriving in Manhattan with hardly a penny to her name (although she somehow managed to drive cross country with no financial problems whatsoever), Michelle has the amazing fortune to find a living arrangement with an elderly Norwegian woman, who, of course, is both kind and willing to board Michelle in Midtown at a reasonable rent. This happens by page nine and within a few hours of her arrival in New York. See where this is headed?
The problem with Show Up, Look Good isn't so much that Wisniewski fails to imagine quirky, original, and potentially riveting situations for Michelle to fall into. Over the course of the novel, she discovers that part of her arrangement with Etta, the Norwegian woman, involves bathing her daily; loses her room due to a fire that destroys the building; winds up rooming with a snobby MFA student whose social circle is truly cringeworthy; lands with a middle-aged couple in Astoria, Queens, whose actual intent is a ménage à trois; rents a decrepit studio in Astoria and teaches herself to paint while working for a truly horrific and depraved boss at a sketchy grocery; gets framed by said boss for an assault and fired; accepts an offer from Ernest to occupy his apartment for free, provided she absent herself on occasion so that illicit rendezvous can discreetly take place; and witnesses a murder.
All of the above could be elements of a truly incisive picaresque novel about the delayed coming of age and blossoming of a small town girl in the big city. The scenarios wouldn't feel out of place in a novel by Nabokov or Pynchon at that. In the hands of Wisniewski, however, the elements not only fall flat, but are actually unbearable at times. Frankly put, Michelle is perhaps the most unsympathetic, shallow, flatly drawn, naïve, hypocritical, and infeasible protagonist I can recall encountering in a work of fiction -- and that's no exaggeration.
Now, it's entirely possible to write good, even great fiction with a loathsome protagonist -- Nabokov's Lolita comes immediately to mind, in which Humbert Humbert is the sort of chap who would induce spittle-flecked apoplexy from Nancy Grace. Yet, vile though he may be, his character is written with such humor, earnestness in depravity, and sheer panache that the reader can't help sympathizing with him. Günter Grass's The Tin Drum is another fine example -- Oskar is a monster, but again, his voice is so unique and his manner of narrating so repulsively humorous that the reader is instantly drawn into his worldview.
Michelle, on the other hand, manages to incorporate all the negative aspects of an unlikable protagonist without a single redeeming quality. Her misery and hypocrisy wash over every page, but the reader at no point feels as if anything is at stake. The breakoff of her engagement with her fiance seems to affect her about as much as the World Cup affects your average cat. She goes on at length about the pretention and self-absorption of her MFA roommate's poseur creative-type friends, yet spends nearly fifty pages trying to teach herself to paint well enough to exhibit and sell, and constantly thinks of little else than others' opinions of her. Typical of the novel's uneven structure, the subject of painting is dropped and at no point comes back into the story by the time Michelle moves into Ernest's apartment (roughly the novel's last sixty pages). Again, this approach can work in a protagonist if there's some element of catharsis or some movement in the character's relation to herself, others, or the outside world.
Michelle prattles on and on about her loneliness, lack of confidence, and self-imposed isolation, yet never resolves, makes headway on, or falls utter prey to these character flaws, the exposition of which practically define good character writing. The reader learns of her fraught relationship to her father, whom she believes blames her for her mother's death (at Michelle's birth), and spends several pages "working through" her emotions in unfeeling and rote manner. She resolves her mother's death wasn't her fault, glibly decides "problem solved," and mentions how much she's changed, when at no point during the novel does anything about her change. (Moreover, haven't most people at least considered some of these personal and family issues by their mid-thirties? Especially for someone described as a person who "thinks too much?")
To make matters worse, Wisniewski's commitment to Michelle's self-absorbed and uncritical naïveté sacrifices the stories of the truly interesting characters in the book -- Etta's past in Manhattan, the self-loathing and need for belonging of Sarah (the MFA roommate), the sexual inclinations and back stories of the Astoria couple, the past of Ernest, the once-great Yankee dying of cancer and reduced through gambling debt to being a super for crumbling buildings in Midtown. These stories could be utterly engrossing, but at best get a lazy and straightforward exposition that reflects Michelle's lack of curiosity about seemingly everything.
The final straw is the novel's "big reveal" at its conclusion, which was so staggeringly bad that I literally threw the book across the room upon completing it. Not only is the denouement entirely predictable for the most part, but also rests upon a premise so unlikely given everything the reader has learned about Michelle that the rest of the novel's incongruities seem downright quaint.
Wisniewski, who's won a Pushcart Prize and been anthologized in Best American Short Stories for his short fiction, is the author of one previous novel Confessions of a Polish Used Car Salesman and quite talented as a poet. Both his short fiction and his debut novel display his ability to craft a quirky and slightly snide voice that works to great and humorous effect in the milieu of his native Milwaukee. That voice does not translate to New York City.
Show Up, Look Good by Mark Wisniewski