Pocket Review: The Morels by Christopher Hacker

morelsThe Morels
Christopher Hacker
Soho Press, 2013

Many years ago, I bought a house while I was living with my then-boyfriend. Things weren’t going well between us, to the extent that I felt more comfortable getting into a 30-year commitment with Chase Mortgage than with him. Still, we stayed together, in no small part because at one point he told me accusingly, “I know exactly what’s going to happen—we’re going to move and then you’re going to dump me.”

So of course I couldn’t, even though the relationship had clearly run its course and neither of us was happy. We made it almost a year after moving, at which point he had the good sense to leave, but up to that point he had effectively inoculated the dynamic between us; he had thrown down, and for me to confirm his prediction would have been dishonorable in the extreme.

Christopher Hacker’s debut novel, The Morels, feels a bit like that kind of a throw down. It’s a book that dares you not to like it—it is, in essence, a powerfully alienating story about the power of a story to alienate, a tale about the ways art can redeem and destroy, the pernicious probing of authorial intent, the fragility of families, and damage done that can’t be undone—or can it? It wants to ask the big questions, but it wants to make you uncomfortable in the process. Whether the purpose is to force a more honest reaction from an off-balance reader, or simply to pre-empt easy judgment, is hard to say.

Consider, for instance, the narrator. A featureless 30ish guy who lives with his mother and works in a movie theater, he is passive to the point of remaining nameless all the way through. While he’s working on a film with his old college roommate, he doesn’t seem to be any kind of budding auteur, biding his time in the service business in Tarantinoesque dues-paying—he’s just a slacker to whom things happen, there to move the action along and, for purposes of the story, eventually run into a childhood friend, Arthur Morel.

Morel was a mysterious teenager, prone to pronouncements of the worthlessness of art as a radical statement, and who had gotten himself kicked out of their prestigious music seminary (think: act of art as a radical statement). When their paths cross 14 years later, Arthur is a writer and adjunct professor, on the verge of publishing his second novel. He’s also a husband and father, and he draws our narrator into the circle of his family—lovely wife Penelope, precocious 11-year-old son Will—in the weeks just before his family, and his life, implode. The catalyst, in this case, is the novel. It tells a story about a family called the Morels: Arthur, Penelope, and Will; a mild domestic drama that mirrors their own lives, and then culminates in a disturbingly transgressive sexual act.

It’s a work of fiction, Arthur explains, even as his father-in-law sues him, his wife takes his son and leaves, he loses his job, and is arrested and put on trial. It’s a made up story, he insists as the situation snowballs. Our hapless narrator and his film crew eagerly trade in their second-rate Hamlet adaptation for a documentary about Arthur, shining a literal spotlight on his parents and intensely dysfunctional childhood. But the more they find out, the less we know; the truth only serves to obscure the facts here. Is Morel a true artist willing to lose everything to make a statement? Is he a shameless self-promoter? Is he a hopelessly damaged adult child of abuse and neglect? Is he inventing, or remembering, or something else?

As The Morels sets up some weighty questions, the reader will find some gnawing metafictional issues to wrestle with as well: Do the characters’ lack of depth actually give them rhetorical strength? Is our inability to like any of them our fault, as readers, for requiring relatability rather than real-world homeliness? Does the narrator’s lack of any defining personality turn out to serve a different purpose in the story altogether? Are we supposed to like this book? Hacker makes sure, by the end of the novel, that the reader doesn’t even have the comfort of falling back on the shallow conventions of taste.

Any story about art and morals with a protagonist called Art Morel isn’t going to make an initial claim to subtlety (there’s also a character who cries a lot named Delores, and young Will, who sets events spinning by sheer… you get the picture). But there are layers that surprise, some vivid writing, and Hacker offers up odd moments that are, for all the book’s intellectual exercise, like little jabs to the gut:

An officer who could have been one of Arthur’s students took down his name on a pad and asked him some question, each one a spoonful of grief.

At the same time, it’s disconcerting on a purely literary level, changing tenses in a way that might have been designed to mimic a camera pulling out for a wide shot and then back in, but that felt more like grit on the lens. Penelope’s infatuation with Arthur the Artist is hard to take as well; he offers her a chance to read the manuscript before its publication and veto the whole enterprise, and she declines out of some servility to creative mystery that doesn’t quite come off:

Wasn’t it refreshing, after years of seeing everything Arthur wasn’t, of having pointed out to her everything Arthur could never be—and the kind of family she could never have—to be shown what her husband actually was? “So no, I don’t want to go back to an Art who doesn’t make art. I’d rather he offend my parents, offend me.”

But the package as a whole kept turning my reactions back on myself: I’m sorry, can you not handle unpleasant characters? Is the story too ugly for you? Is it making you think too hard? I’m sure there are some Anne Tyler novels on the shelf over there—those are nice. There’s something passive-aggressive about the book’s stance, and at the same time accomplished; you have to admire the ways it toys with you, even if you have reservations about how you’re being treated. The Morels knows you want to break up with it, but has no intention of letting you off the hook that easily.

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