Tag Archives: The Dogs of Babel

Not So Harmonious

harmony

Harmony: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Pamela Dorman Books, $26.00, 288 pages)

In 2003, I purchased and read the then-new novel The Dogs of Babel by Carolyn Parkhurst. I found it to be strange, engaging and more than a bit troubling. Years later I received a review copy of The Nobodies Album, a novel that I found to be flat and dry the first time I read it. For some reason, I later elected to read Nobodies a second time and enjoyed it once I realized that Parkhurst was channeling the cool, icy style of Joan Didion.

And so we come to Harmony, the latest novel from Parkhurst. The first thing I will note is that it’s more Babel-like than Nobodies. Basically, the author has decided to write a giant curveball of a story. Trust me, it’s not what you think it is.

In Nobodies Parkhurst took us into the world of professional musicians. Like a musician, she uses tension to a great extent in Harmony – such a calming title for a tense work, setting us up for what we believe will be discomfort and pain before relief.

We’re not ordinary people anymore. As far as the whole world is concerned, you’re all members of a cult. And me? I’m your leader, I’m your Jim Jones.

In this story, Alexandra Hammond is a mother in Washington, D.C. facing significant difficulties in managing her autistic daughter Tilly. Her husband Josh and her other daughter, Iris, are also highly affected by the situations created by the brilliant, yet socially inept Tilly. Finally, Alexandra finds a savior of sorts, a not-quite psychologist/teacher by the name of Scott Bean. Bean proposes to set up Camp Harmony in the wilds of New Hampshire, a place of refuge and healing for families with unique, difficult (never “special”) children.

It turns out, naturally, that Mr. Bean may be anything but stable himself.

The good news about Harmony is that there are stretches where Parkhurst hits her stride in writing well:

Happiness, as it exists in the world – as opposed to those artificially constructed moments like weddings and birthday parties, where it’s gathered into careful piles – is not smooth. Happiness in the real world is mostly just resilience and a willingness to arch oneself toward optimism. To believe that people are more good than bad. To believe that the waves carrying you are neither friendly nor malicious, and to know that you’re less likely to drown if you stop struggling against them.

But the fine writing is more or less wasted in a tale that’s clever, clever, clever and clever. In the words of a college professor, “This is too clever by half.” Even worse, when Parkhurst reaches the natural ending of the story she refuses to let it lie. Instead, she adds on an “epilogue” that stands alone. It’s unrealistic and calls to mind the magic-centered writing of Audrey Niffenegger (Her Fearful Symmetry).

It’s quite likely that Parkhurst has it in her to write a Niffenegger-style story of hope and deliverance. But this is not that story.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was received from the publisher.

This book was released on August 2, 2016.

This review was first posted on the Blogcritics site:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-harmony-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

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Nobody But Me

The Nobodies Album (nook book)

Is The Nobodies Album a better read the second time around?

The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (Anchor, $15.00, 320 pages)

The plane rises. We achieve liftoff, and in that mysterious, hanging moment I say a prayer – as I always do – to help keep us aloft. In my more idealistic days, I used to add a phrase of benediction for all the other people on the airplane, which eventually stretched into a wish for every soul who found himself away from home that day… I stopped doing that a long time ago. Because if you think about it, when has there ever been a day when all the world’s travelers have been returned safely to their homes, to sleep untroubled in their beds? That’s not the way it works. Better to keep your focus on yourself and leave the others to sort it out. Better to say a prayer for your own well-being and hope that today, at least, you’ll be one of the lucky ones.

There are music albums that we listen to repeatedly, sometimes finding that they have a different impact on us – major or minor – depending on when you experience them. The Nobodies Album: A Novel by Carolyn Parkhurst (author of the unique and bizarre bestseller The Dogs of Babel) is a book that I read before. I did not connect with it at the time; fortunately, I decided to give the book a second chance and I’m glad I did.

This is the story of a San Francisco-based musician, Milo Frost, who has been arrested for murdering his girlfriend, Bettina Moffett. His estranged mother, Octavia Frost, a one-time bestselling novelist, decides to reconcile with him to give him moral and legal support. Milo’s problem is that he was so drunk the night of his girlfriend’s death that he cannot remember what he did that evening. He does not believe that he killed Bettina but admits that he could have been involved. (On the night in question, Bettina first accepted Milo’s proposal of marriage, and then rejected it.)

Parkhurst adds a twist to the telling, as the writer Octavia is at the point where she’s elected to rewrite the conclusions of her bestselling novels. It’s not something that pleases her publisher; but, Octavia is determined to follow-through with her idea. (This may have been based on an instance in which Joan Didion rewrote one of her short stories decades after it was written. Note that the title of this novel, The Nobodies Album, is connected to The White Album by The Beatles early on. It just so happens that Didion wrote a collection of bestselling essays called The White Album.)

I suppose you could say I’d been thinking about endings.

It does not take long for Octavia, and the readers, to realize that she’s toying with the notion of changing the endings to her book in hopes that it might lead to some changes in her own life. As she states to a musician, “I’ve thought it might be interesting to change the endings. Find out how things might have worked out differently for the characters.” Naturally, one has to wonder how much of bestselling author Parkhurst can be found in the character of Octavia Frost. (Will she rewrite the ending of The Nobodies Album in twenty, thirty or forty years?)

To her credit, Parkhurst brings Octavia Frost’s writing to life by providing the endings of several of Frost’s novels before showing us the rewritten endings. The latter are generally simpler, more concise, and neater; perhaps resulting in neater, better outcomes for the characters involved.

The Nobodies Album multiple

Parkhust writes somewhat in the style of Didion – there’s an icy coolness/coldness present as well as toughness and brutal honesty: “Now that the moment is here, it’s not what I expected at all. That’s the fundamental flaw in in the illusions that writers like to maintain, the idea that we can craft anything approaching the truth. No matter how vividly we set the scene, we never come close to the unambiguous realness of the moment itself. Here’s how I feel, faced with my child’s confession that he has committed murder: I don’t believe it’s true. Not for a single minute.”

Those with some knowledge of the music and publishing industries will appreciate the realistic stage upon which Parkhurst’s story is set. The less said about the outcome of the murder mystery, the better. No spoilers here. But be prepared to be impressed by The Nobodies Album, whether you read it once or twice – or more often.

Highly recommended.

Joseph Arellano

A review copy was provided by the publisher. This book was released on June 15, 2010.

This review first appeared on the Blogcritics site as an Editor’s Pick:

http://blogcritics.org/book-review-the-nobodies-album-by-carolyn-parkhurst/

It also appeared here:

http://www.seattlepi.com/lifestyle/blogcritics/article/Book-Review-The-Nobodies-Album-by-Carolyn-5760693.php

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