Loneliness seems to be having a moment. Of course, the subject isn’t entirely new. Alexis de Tocqueville identified a brand of loneliness seemingly specific to America back in the mid-nineteenth century; we also have 1950’s The Lonely Crowd and 2000’s Bowling Alone. But recently the subject has acquired a new urgency, with Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together and last year’s Jeff, One Lonely Guy. I can see a Special Topics syllabus forming: Post-Millennial Loneliness. (To be delivered online, probably.)
Fiona Maazel’s new novel, Woke Up Lonely, would deserve a place in such a course. Like Maazel’s first novel, 2009’s Last Last Chance, Woke Up Lonely presents a slightly surreal America in which everyone’s worst tendencies are amplified and no one can be trusted. Thurlow Dan, the leader of a group that seems to have started as an honest effort to combat loneliness but developed into something more cult-like, wants his estranged ex-wife and daughter back in his life. Despite being a famous cult leader, he’s lonely. He’s also under surveillance by the Department of Defense, because his cult, Helix, is suspected of being in negotiations with North Korea and of beginning to arm itself. There are some seccessionistic rumblings. Thurlow’s ex-wife, Esme, is the Department of Defense employee in charge of keeping tabs on Thurlow and has feelings for her ex-husband that rival his for her.
Boy wants girl, girl wants boy – no problem, right? They should get together and the story can conclude happily. The novel’s plot, though, performs the same kind of push-pull dynamics that keep its characters miserable and lonely. The motif here is desires at cross-purposes, both between people and within individuals. As part of the series of detours that keep Esme and Thurwell from coming together, we meet four lonely Americans whom Esme recruits as DoD agents, and Thurwell subsequently takes as hostages on the condition that Esme and his daughter grant him a face-to-face meeting. (“On behalf of the Helix,” he writes in one of several attempts at a ransom note, “I demand that for the release of the four detainees, Esme Haas and daughter Ida present themselves at my door for cookies and milk. Tea and cookies. Hot chocolate and pfeffernüsse…”) The stories of these four are some of the most compelling parts of the novel: we have an aspiring documentary filmmaker who seems most comfortable interacting with people when behind a camera, a woman whose only sexual experience was childhood incest, a man who’s recently learned that he is adopted and has a secret twin sister on whom he is now pinning all of his hopes for interpersonal fulfillment, and another man who works as a professional mediator but is unable to figure out what’s going on with his own wife. In other words, these are people confounded by the challenges of relationships (as one of them puts it, “the unknown of other people’s feelings”).
Maazel is a master sentence-maker and has a black sense of humor that makes for an addictive reading experience. The sexually charged chat rooms frequented by some of the cult members are described as “a peacocking of misery.” Thurlow, in a section Maazel allows him to narrate in first-person, tries to convey his solitude by saying, “I’d put a fork down the garbage disposal just so I could call a repairman.”
As I mentioned, though, the relationship the novel establishes with the reader is as push-pull as any of those between its characters. Just as we start to get interested in one storyline, we’re thrust into another. A moment that threatens to become emotional will be quickly punctured with a sentence of corrosive irony. By the end of the novel I felt it and I had formed a sort of unhealthy relationship: half the time I spent admiring its bravado, while the other half I spent rubbing my neck from plot-induced whiplash. Ultimately, I think it was worth the occasionally rough terrain. The times I spent almost disliking the book ultimately made me like it more. If there’s one thing this novel wants to remind me, it’s that demanding that the world fit exactly to my expectations is a good way to end up lonely.