Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Wednesday, August 14, 2013: Maximum Shelf: Man Alive!

Farrar Straus Giroux: Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Farrar Straus Giroux: Man Alive! by Mary Kay Zuravleff

Farrar Straus Giroux: Someone by Alice McDermott

Farrar Straus Giroux: Tinderbox by Lisa Gornick

Man Alive!

by Mary Kay Zuravleff

It is rare enough to find a novel that combines a compelling story with beautiful writing, but even more unlikely to discover a novelist who can present these elements in as unique a way as Mary Kay Zuravleff has in Man Alive! Zuravleff has taken a familiar situation--a family faced with a crisis--and given it a strikingly original spin while still managing to convey themes that are universal.

One of Zuravleff's many gifts is her ability to set up and shade a scene with both physical and emotional nuance. So when we are first introduced to Owen Lerner and his family on the last day of their Delaware beach vacation, we learn a great deal about their family dynamic simply from observing Owen, a pediatric psychopharmacologist, reach into his pocket for a quarter to put in a parking meter. As he moves to slip the coin in the slot, Owen occupies the space between the past and the future, reflecting on the relationship he has with his wife, Toni, whom he still considers "lovely," and how comfortable it has become. His thoughts alternating between the dinner he's about to have and what medications he'll prescribe for his patients, Owen notices that his 16-year-old daughter, Brooke, seems to have suddenly become a woman and that his twin college-age sons, Will and Ricky, have forged their own identities. Life is good even if peppered with small anxieties. But then Owen feeds the meter and everything changes in one elongated electrified moment. Owen is literally struck by lightning and hurled to the pavement; Ricky dashes over to him and immediately begins CPR. In one of the novel's most elegantly crafted passages (though choosing just one would be impossible in a novel filled with equally lovely passages), Owen's body hovers near death as his life unreels before him. It is a moment of pure understanding for Owen--all of life's mysteries revealed in a flash of ecstatic enlightenment and accompanied, improbably, by the smell of the world's best barbeque.

Though badly burned, Owen survives his injuries (and along the way, Zuravleff provides us with some fascinating details about lightning strikes and their effect on the human body), but his recovery is slow and hampered by his desire to revisit that fleeting moment of ecstasy, which leads him to start acting erratically. But Owen isn't the only Lerner affected by the lightning. In the months following the accident, the entire Lerner family undergoes a sometimes humorous but often very painful transformation as their roles are redefined and their notions of reality are challenged and recalibrated. Moving through the perspectives of all the Lerner family members, Zuravleff displays an almost savant-like insight into the roiling emotions produced in the wake of a brain injury.

Toni takes the first and, initially, the hardest hit as she struggles to understand a husband who is no longer emotionally reliable and who acts, much of the time, like a stranger. Though dedicated to Owen, Toni is uncomfortable in the role of caretaker and can't fathom why Owen insists on chasing down and re-experiencing a moment that almost killed him; she ping-pongs between hope and despair. Teenage Brooke takes her father's new, electrified personality in stride at first, but her mother's anxiety and Owen's flirtation with danger frighten her and when her attempts to get comfort from her brothers fail, she starts looking for love in exactly the wrong place. Perhaps most deeply affected, however, are Owen's sons, although they react in different ways. Will, the "older" of the two, who considers himself closer to his father than his mother, is unsettled (in a way he can't define) that it was Ricky who first came to his father's aid after the lightning strike. Will pulls away from his family, experimenting heavily with drugs and reckless sex until his actions throw the family into another, more public crisis. Wounded by his brother's absence, Ricky attempts to redefine himself with mixed results.

For his part, Owen battles the depression that can follow a traumatic brain injury as well as the adjustment required by his new worldview. The irony that his brain now works in much the same way as his other-wired pediatric patients is not lost on him. In one of the novel's many gently humorous and poignant side plots, Owen attempts to re-create the divine barbeque he smelled when lightning struck him by learning everything there is to know on the subject of fire-roasted meats. He orders tools and befriends butchers and soon constructs a massive fire pit in the family's backyard, where he hosts elaborate, fantastic barbeques.

Their circumstances are highly unusual, but the Lerners and their struggles are recognizable and instantly familiar. It is a credit to Zuravleff's knowledge of the ties that bind and the stresses that break us as family that we feel so strongly about this one. The subtlety and intimacy with which Zuravleff portrays the Lerners would be enough to make Man Alive! a compelling novel but her understanding of and ability to convey the slippery nature of reality and, by extension, what is "normal" lifts it to another level. This is a wonderful and, in many ways, magical novel by a gifted author. --Debra Ginsberg


Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $25, hardcover, 9780374202316, September 3, 2013

Farrar Straus Giroux: Hild by Nicola Griffith

Mary Kay Zuravleff: Secular Metaphysicist

Photo: Epic Photography/Jamie Schoenberger

Mary Kay Zuravleff is the author of The Bowl Is Already Broken, which The New York Times praised as "a tart, affectionate satire of the museum world's bickering and scheming," and The Frequency of Souls, which the Chicago Tribune deemed "a beguiling and wildly inventive first novel." Honors for her work include the American Academy's Rosenthal Award and the James Jones First Novel Award, and she has been nominated for the Orange Prize. She lives in Washington, D.C., where she serves on the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and is a cofounder of the D.C. Women Writers Group. Her latest novel, Man Alive!, is a September 3, 2013, publication from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

As both a writer and a reader, I was intrigued from the first page by your central premise--the effect of literally being struck by lightning. How did this idea come to you?

Oliver Sacks published an article in the New Yorker about people who had been hit by lightning, and one of them was a surgeon, I think, who began to hear piano music. He literally learned how to compose the music he could hear in his head. I was interested in imagining someone who treasured such a potentially devastating experience. The pediatric psychopharmacologist, the barbecue--that combo just popped into my head the way most notions do, like the words that float up on the bottom of the Magic 8 Ball.

While not a comedic novel per se, Man Alive! is threaded with deeply ironic humor. In fact, humor--or at least the acceptance of the absurd--seems to be an essential coping mechanism for the Lerner family. Did you begin the novel knowing that humor would be such an important component or did it weave itself into the story as you wrote?

I love how you said that: the acceptance of the absurd is an essential coping mechanism, and I'll add that the absurd also underscores the tragic. The other morning I said to my husband, "How could Congress not pass an assault weapons ban?" and he answered, "The deer are getting more aggressive every day." That is actually the best answer to my question--absurd makes more sense than their rationale--and it also shows me that he heard my point. His making me laugh was the most empathetic response he could have made! Think about the best Lorrie Moore moments, where you laugh even as you feel the wind knocked out of you. She wrote one of the darkest, upsettingly funny stories about a child with cancer (and Chris Adrian wrote another). But there are sad/hysterical aspects on a daily basis in marriage, raising kids, living in Washington, D.C., for heaven's sake. I would argue that humor is a necessary component in literary novels!

One of the themes in the novel is how fine the line is between spiritual ecstasy and insanity. Can you explain how that theme developed for you?

I'm not sure if the theme developed or has always been an obsession. A reviewer of my first novel, The Frequency of Souls, said I practiced "secular metaphysics," because that novel goes to the intersection of science, spirituality, and religion. In my second novel, all the curators at an Asian art museum treat their work as a calling--they're essentially art nuns. I'm always skating on that thin ice of mysticism, which often breaks through into freezing water! In Man Alive!, I came at the theme through electricity and barbecue (and I'd written about electricity before, speaking of obsessions). Evidently, I'm drawn to single-mindedness, which actually ties into Asperger's Syndrome as well. People's devotions, or addictions, or afflictions, if you will, often stem from their trying to make sense and order or trying to take their mind off disorder/nonsense. 

The novel moves seamlessly between the points of view of all the five Lerners--Owen, Toni, Will, Ricky, and Brooke, covering a huge range of emotion and experience. Which character--if any--was most challenging to write? Which point of view felt most comfortable for you?

My goal was to write the novel in "family point of view," because I wanted to show each character in his/her own head and show how much of our emotional life isn't shared. What was challenging and horribly uncomfortable to write was putting the characters in harm's way. You create these people you love and then, as a novelist, you essentially kneecap them! I was especially squeamish writing the scenes where the kids are spiraling down.

There is so much interesting information about different kinds of brain dysfunction in Man Alive! as well as a treasure trove of material about barbeque. How much research did you do for the novel and what was the most surprising thing you discovered along the way?

The most surprising thing I discovered was that people who recover from a lightning strike exhibit many of the symptoms that Owen Lerner's been treating for years. I liked the idea of a pediatric psychopharmacologist revisiting "What is normal?" and "What is appropriate?" But much to my surprise, strike victims suffer from depression, PTSD, ADHD, OCD and Asperger-like traits--now, the questions of "neurotypical" behavior and of medication are personal! That really thickened the sauce. And speaking of barbeque, I grew up in Oklahoma and went to school in Texas, so I've not only eaten my weight in barbecue but also happily chewed through more research. --Debra Ginsberg

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