Feb/Mar 2013

Wonders of the Visible World

The magical meets the mundane in Jonathan Dee's latest

David Haglund


A Thousand Pardons opens at a large home on a dead-end street in a fictional well-to-do bedroom community near New York City called Rensselaer Valley. The home belongs to Helen Armstead, an unsatisfied housewife; her husband, Ben, an unsatisfied corporate lawyer; and their daughter, Sara, who was adopted from China and is also unsatisfied. This familiar literary scenario, with its echoes of Cheever and Yates and Updike, reaches its expected destination with alarming speed: Ben goes after a comely summer associate; receives a serious beating from the associate’s boyfriend; crashes his Audi, drunk on bourbon, off of County Route 55; and ends up in rehab, the divorce pending, by page 23.

The alacrity with which novelist Jonathan Dee blows through this amount of plot makes more sense when you realize that the first forty pages of A Thousand Pardons make up what comic-book enthusiasts call an “origin story.” Helen Armstead, it turns out, has a superpower: the ability to make well-placed men apologize. Why does Helen have this skill? How does it work? You may as well ask how, precisely, a radioactive spider-bite could transform a human being into a freakishly strong web-spinner. It’s a mystery.

The first time Helen uses her apparently magical words, Dee tells us, “she felt what she was about to say coming over her, moving in her, before she understood what it was.” It’s not clear why her words, which have no particular rhetorical pizzazz, are so powerful. Perhaps it’s the sound of her voice? Dee doesn’t say. By this point, Helen, who must find a job after Ben leaves his, is working at a small public-relations firm in Manhattan. At her first consultation, Helen flatly contradicts her boss and instructs a client—the owner of a Chinese restaurant, who’s taking heat for not sufficiently compensating his deliverymen—to tell the world he’s sorry. He obliges, and the world—that part of it in his delivery zone, anyway—forgives him. Helen’s boss dies almost immediately, leaving Helen—whose previous work experience consists of managing retail at a Ralph Lauren store—in charge.

This twist, too, has a comic-book quality: Destiny, it seems, is making arrangements so that Helen can prominently exercise her newfound powers. A number of writers—Jonathan Lethem and Michael Chabon most famously—have over the last couple decades incorporated caped crusaders of various kinds into fiction that is otherwise conspicuously literary, full of psychological nuance and fancy prose and quiet endings. A Thousand Pardons reverses this strategy, holding fast to the ordinary characters and banal premises of the “literary” novel, but employing the facile plotting and thin characterization typical of much genre fiction.

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Carey Russell, I'm a Superhero (detail), 2012.

Was Dee’s narrative strategy deliberate? Did he really set out to create such an unpromising hybrid? Perhaps not, though there were times when I wondered. After Helen’s boss dies, for instance, a white-haired man with a “conspicuous aura of success” comes to the office and offers Helen all the money she could hope for, because, he says, she has “an extraordinary gift,” something that this man—he turns out to be the chairman of “the sixth largest PR agency in the world”—has somehow discerned after Helen’s modest victory with the Chinese restaurant and another with a New York chain of grocery stores. The man is named Teddy Malloy, and his literary antecedent in this scene, it seems to me, is Professor X, head of the X-Men, recruiting some fledgling mutant who possesses a talent badly needed by his world-saving team.

Whether Dee intended his plot turns to read as fantastical or not, they often feel rushed and un-thought-through. After Ben finishes rehab, he spends a couple months alone at a cabin. His former life is in ruins, and the threat of prison for DWI—and possibly sexual assault, though that charge is eventually dropped—lies ahead. And he is utterly untroubled. He looks back at his self-destruction “more in wonder than in regret.” He just bides his time. Which keeps this part of the novel from taking up too many pages, but also makes it entirely uninteresting. Ben destroyed his marriage and threw his high-paying job out the window because of what he himself called an “existential crisis.” And now, apparently, inexplicably, he has no inner life to speak of.

The absence of any inward storm is reminiscent of the blithe, unintrospective characters of The Privileges, Dee’s previous book, which in 2011 was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. There the lack of introspection was largely the point: Adam and Cynthia Morey, the obscenely wealthy couple at the heart of the novel, make forgetting the past and ignoring others their mantra—it’s partly why they have so much money. The way that novel sailed smoothly when you expected rough patches was also part of the point. It’s what privilege largely is: freedom from consequences. Dee’s impressively fluid prose (no less smooth in this new book than it was in that one) matched the Moreys well—as James Wood wrote in the New Yorker, the “easy, contemporary flow of the writing carries us along so smoothly that we barely notice how alienated we ought to be from the characters’ preoccupations.” That’s somewhat overstated: The Moreys are quite evidently alienating to me, at least. But Wood is right that Dee establishes their distance from us subtly, for the most part, through the careful use of close third-person narration.

The Privileges was about people content to live as though the past does not exist, while A Thousand Pardons is ostensibly about owning up to the past. In the world of public relations, such owning up may simply be a way of making other people forget your injustices, and I suspect that is part of what Dee is getting at. Helen and Ben similarly get through their problems via a state of apparent amnesia. The book ends with Helen and Ben somehow back together, living in their old house, even—Ben is less broke after prison than expected, and so he secretly buys it from Helen, who put it on the market so she could move to Manhattan. Helen sleeps on the couch, and Ben now picks her up from the train station after work each day. Perhaps this is meant to be another book about privilege, one that shows us how the well-to-do can get away with murder, so to speak, and then resume their comfortable lives.

Dee flirts with making that murder more than proverbial: After Helen starts plying her trade at Malloy Worldwide, she gets the chance to reconnect with Hamilton Barth, a movie star with whom she happened to grow up. Hamilton, who provides one of the novel’s four perspectives (the other three are Armsteads: Helen, Ben, and Sara), is a mix of Hollywood clichés. Like Harrison Ford, he has bought a ranch to get away from it all; like Joaquin Phoenix, he is deadly serious about his craft and disillusioned with stardom; and like, well, take your pick, he’s an alcoholic. A bender leaves him in a motel surrounded by blood, the young girl he brought with him terrifyingly absent. In this bind, he calls Helen for help. She drops everything to get him out of his mess. And that mess turns out to be . . .

If I were actually writing about a comic book, this is the part of the review where I would refrain from giving away the ending—because one of the differences between bona fide genre books and literary novels is that the former can be spoiled: We read them largely to find out what happens. But even though this novel occasionally led me to believe otherwise, I remain convinced that Dee’s aims are not merely to divert or entertain. Fiction’s “task,” he once wrote in Harper’s, “is to do justice to the inexhaustible complexity of human motivation.” So I will go ahead and tell you that Hamilton’s mess amounts to basically nothing. The missing girl checked herself into rehab, and Hamilton doesn’t have to apologize for anything. If you’re reading for a juicy plot, then you’ll be let down.

So what about the human motivations? Are they inexhaustibly complex? Not really. Helen has nursed a longing for the glamorous Hamilton since high school, so she heeds his call. It’s professionally ruinous, and it distracts her from her daughter, Sara, but such is the pull of fame, apparently. Sara’s story, it turns out, is both less flashy and more gripping: Adrift and detached in a familiarly postpubescent way, with an edge of alienation from her white parents, she gets involved with a classmate named Cutter, a wealthy black kid who’s even more confused than she is. The two provide an engaging little arc of intimacy and estrangement—but it has little to do with Helen, Ben, and Hamilton, who all suffer in comparison. The story of Sara and Cutter feels like a retreat of sorts from the novel’s ostensibly central set of pardons.

And those various forgivenesses are frustratingly undeveloped. The conceit of A Thousand Pardons is appealing, because we tend to think of forgiveness as inherently moral, as the right thing to do. The use of pardon in the title—a word more associated with Nixon than with Jesus—is perhaps the first indication that Dee means to upend that notion. Should Ben Armstead, skeezy corporate lawyer, be so readily pardoned, so quickly let back into his old life? Are the daily pardons granted to the famous Hamilton Barth enabling the star’s alcoholism? Is forgiveness from society simply another privilege of the well-to-do?

These are good questions for a novel to ask, ones that might bring new life to the Cheever-ish setup Dee begins with. But his awkward mix of narrative strategies—realistic on the surface, fantastical beneath—is the worst of both worlds, and ultimately bears only a passing resemblance to the one we actually live in.

David Haglund is a writer and editor at Slate.

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