Bryan Polk’s second novel starts out promising and enjoyable. It’s the tale of a brother and sister, Mason and Eileen Jarman, who live in Denver. Both are in their mid-thirties and trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives. It’s a struggle that many thirty-somethings face as their peers start pairing off and having children. This inability to find meaning while simultaneously flailing about in life is a subject in literature (both fiction and non-fiction) that has interested me since I read Douglas Copeland’s Generation X about fifteen years ago.
As the book progresses, it enters a more surreal turn as Mason finds employment in character placement. As the book states, it’s a vocation that provides “real life depictions of characters for fictional novels.” The idea behind character placement is that someone wanting to write a novel can’t come up with things in their own imagination and so pays people to act out what might happen minus a script. I had many questions about how realistic this would be (is it possible to have all the conversations recorded for the author? Wouldn’t that ruin the ability of the actors to fully embrace their characters?)
At some point a headless spirit of a Colorado miner and a taking dog named Herman enter Placement of Character and that’s when I realized the book was the equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut taking a bad left turn. Vonnegut was able to tear down the fourth wall and make surreal science fiction accessible and almost believable. Polk, on the other hand, starts with a relatable tale of figuring out what you should be doing with your life. From there he tries to solve the existential conundrum through the interaction of spirits and an ending that is so ham-fisted that he might as well have written, “GET IT?! Do you get it? See what I did there?”
Polk writes well and understands how to make a story flow. His characters are interesting, albeit with some flaws (Mason seems to be a punk but is also very concerned with society’s opinion of him, which seems very antithetical to a punk ethos) and I would’ve been willing to follow them along a more realistic journey. That’s not to say I dislike this type of fiction—I can get down with Vonnegut and others like him who play with reality. However, I’m not sure I can follow along with a story where the evil intents of the spirit of a dead miner is thwarted by some punks who play They Might Be Giants and dance as “freaky” as they can. –Kurt Morris (Suspect Press, 1280 Sherman St., Denver, CO 80203)