Many readers read Charles Dickens’s novels and initially conclude he was a satirist, then later realize that the journalist-turned-novelist was reporting what he was seeing. Margaret Wappler’s novel Neon Green opens at a family picnic in suburban Chicago in 1994. Ernest, the earnest environmentalist father, warns a stranger that using lighter fluid on charcoal leads to the consumption of the fluid’s toxins—meanwhile, Ernest’s own pristine charcoal refuses to ignite. We’re obviously reading a satire, except as we get to know the world of the novel, Ernest seems more and more reasonable.
Also, there’s a spaceship. In 1969, the U.S. had made contact with life on Jupiter, and twenty-five years later, Ernest’s son Gabe secretly enters a sweepstakes that earns the family a Jupiterian flying saucer parked in their backyard.
But this isn’t science fiction, except in the most technical sense of the term. It’s not even magic realism. Neon Green is a suburban novel about the environment and disease that features a spaceship, an enigma that the family—under Ernest’s orders—attempts to figure out with the help of a logbook of the ship’s actions.
It’s a first novel, and has those first-novel passages that the reader must push against to finish to return to an otherwise compelling story. A suburban novel about the environment, disease, and a spaceship: it’s heartening that we still have presses, however small, that publish books that, at first glance, are going to deflect a lot of readers. I can’t imagine I would have sought it out had I not read Wappler’s essay on King Crimson in Yes Is the Answer, a collection of prog-rock writing (also published by a small press). –Jim Woster (Unnamed Press, unnamedpress.com)