In Jami Attenberg’s new novel, a woman flees her comfortable life and finds a mixed bag of possibilities in Sin City.
As a reader, it can be difficult to follow a character who knows not who they are nor what they want. Often, this is the trouble with stories in which a protagonist is breaking free, leaving a past life behind. The character has loaded the car, the music is loud, and for a moment, everything flies by weightlessly. Then, character and reader must ask the inevitable question: Now what?
In Jami Attenberg’s The Melting Season, Catherine “Moonie” Madison hits the road out of Nebraska with a suitcase of her husband’s money and no clear idea of her next step. The first sections of the novel let us know Moonie is lost, vulnerable, and naive. We wince as she has a tense encounter with two men outside her hotel room, a slow dance of dialogue not unlike the excruciating exchange between Connie and Arthur Friend in Joyce Carol Oates’s classic story “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?”
Attenberg does an expert job of characterizing Moonie’s sheltered, timid, distrustful view of the world of “otherness” she finds outside of Nebraska. Her fears and rejections are relatable and spotlight the idea that one can imprison oneself inside naïveté, reducing all new things to the psychological context of home, with its familiar understanding of the world. In this way, Moonie is an interesting study, and the reader is left to hope, after the first few chapters, that she will somehow burst into consciousness.
As she steers into Las Vegas, The Melting Season finds a new momentum in the electric landscape of casinos, drag queens, and copious liquor. We meet Valka, a stranger to whom Moonie warms quickly, and whose energy propels the story into new possibilities. She, too, is escaping something in Vegas; a cancer survivor who endured a recent breakup, Valka is living large, looking for loose companionship and quick romance. She scoops up Moonie like a mother hen would, pushing her to meet new people, drink champagne in bed, and get out of her head into the present tense. Valka is self-assured, ironic, and, unlike Moonie, ready to free her mind.
The novel’s form curiously adopts this very aesthetic. With Valka on the scene, linearity is disrupted and the story travels back and forth in time, interspersing fragments of Moonie’s memory. Much as she is unable to fully escape her past— her abusive husband, her pregnant sister—the reader remains captive to the story behind the story. Several interesting scenes and vignettes are borne of this backward-glancing, but the picture of Moonie’s past life in Nebraska still remains largely fuzzy.
Attenberg seems aware of this stark difference in energy levels between the backstory and the present-time story unfolding in Las Vegas. She skillfully uses Valka to shovel coal into the engine of the novel, strengthening the narrative at times when the long flashbacks of the second section begin to wind down and deflate. Ultimately, this battle between time frames weakens the novel; the reader is offered answers to the question “Why?” in slow fragments throughout the book, whereas the question “What?”—its central conflict—is never fully understood. Valka, though she tries diligently, can’t quite seem to bring Moonie out of her foggy depression into a new rhythm of possibility. The novel’s climax, involving the inevitable return to Nebraska and search for closure, feels muddy and vague, the necessity of Moonie’s return revealed only in the final pages, a concealment that prevents readers from fully understanding the tension between present and past. As a result, Moonie often feels lost and lackadaisical—real enough emotions in life, but in fiction a recipe for lost momentum.
The Melting Season offers sparkling, vivid glimpses and vignettes of a fractured life, and Jami Attenberg cracks open many truths about memory, perception, and the multiple meanings of “freedom.” What satisfaction is lacking in the story’s end are to be found, in abundance, in the novel’s clarity of vision and the compelling nature of so many of its earlier scenes.