The Reason You’re Alive: A Novel by Matthew Quick (Harper, $25.99, 226 pages)
Living the Crazy Life
The Reason You’re Alive is, supposedly, a novel about a Holden Caulfield-like character who has reached the age (68) at which he has a seven-year-old granddaughter. He’s angry (of course) at the government that sent him to Vietnam in his youth, ultra-conservative (OK), and perhaps more than slightly deranged. However, author Quick (The Silver Linings Playbook) begins the story with his version of charming writing. There is, for example, a scene in which the main character, David Granger, sits down to an imaginary tea party with granddaughter Ella. It’s sweet and cute. And the reader is informed that it just so happens to be the case that Ella is the “spitting image” of Granger’s dead wife – by suicide (naturally).
Jessica Granger was a painter who apparently did little else with her life – David screamed at her on what proved to be her last night on earth, “You have to contribute SOMETHING!” – except for providing Granger with a son; a son which he did not father. Quick, as Granger, writes beautifully about Jessica:
I feel like shedding a tear or two when I think about a nineteen-year-old Jessica looking up from a canvas as big as her, smiling at me with paint smudges all over her face, like camouflage. Her long, brown hair is always braided with pigtails, and she is perpetually in overalls, as if she were a farmer riding on a tractor. All she needed was a piece of hay hanging out of her mouth. You could see the light in her eyes back then. It was as bright as goddamn June moonbeams shimmering off ocean waves still warm from day’s sun.
At this point in the novella, not a novel, the story is quirky with some parallels to the style of The Catcher in the Rye. But this style on the part of the writer does not last, does not hold. It’s not long after one’s approached the halfway point of the story that Quirk goes haywire on us. The suspension of disbelief disappears as he relates events that ring as fully implausible. The story goes from Catcher in the Rye to Catch-22; from simply quirky to fantastical, that is, odd and bizarre.
The outright crazy part of the book focuses on a bonkers Native American soldier, Clayton Fire Bear, who Granger served with in ‘Nam. Fire Bear – who took scalps from dead Viet Cong soldiers, sounds like a character that one would have found in Catch-22. Granger is determined to find Fire Bear in the U.S. and achieve some type of closure with him. There are other inane things that the story focuses on – things which I won’t waste time relating. Suffice it to say that, in the words of a Beatles song, it’s all too much.
There are two possible explanations for the author’s diversions. Perhaps Quick decided to transform Granger from a more than slightly unstable individual to a fully insane unreliable narrator because he believed it was clever from an intellectual – “brilliant author,” standpoint. If so, it’s too clever by half. The other explanation is that Quick was simply enjoying himself at the reader’s expense, setting the reader up for what seemed like a serious journey only to drop him/her into the twilight zone. If the latter is the case, then Quick has fashioned a work that is intentionally and illogically unrestrained.
At the least, this work is inconsistent and unsatisfying. It starts off as an engaging look at a troubled human being – one the reader can partially relate to, and concludes as a work whose faults will be overlooked by those who prefer convoluted, strange literary forests to sensical, sensible trees.
Bottom line: This book is not The Catcher in the Rye and it’s quite far – incredibly far, from being enjoyable. Do yourself a favor and pass on it. You have better things to do with your time.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.