- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 6, 2011

By Hannah Pittard
ECCO, $22.99 243 pages

Hannah Pittard’s “The Fates Will Find Their Way” begins with the disappearance of 16-year-old Nora Lindell from her affluent East Coast suburb one Halloween night, but the book is not a mystery, nor is it about Nora. Nora’s fate remains a mystery, and for precisely this reason the object of fantasy that drives Ms. Pittard’s novel.

“The Fates” is about the boys Nora left behind, the teenage boys whose collective voice narrates the novel, the boys who spend the rest of their lives obsessively thinking about a girl they all wanted to sleep with (maybe one did) but never really knew. Little-known as the coveted Nora was, the idea of her keeps a firm hold on these boys’ imaginations for the rest of their lives: They spend decades inventing puerile, exotic fantasy lives for Nora and recalling and pasting together bits of old gossip about her.

In this, Ms. Pittard’s debut is less novel than a chorus monologue: There’s no real plot, and the characters don’t develop (or only in superficial ways - the boys start families, buy homes, but their thoughts, attitudes and interactions remain adolescent). Instead, the book is a patchwork of discontinuous recollections, gossip and imaginings about Nora, the boys, their friends and neighbors.

Nora is the one that got away - seemingly the only one of the neighborhood kids to escape the stiflingly conformist suburban life that’s made the boys a single mind and voice. While Nora’s unknown fate makes her an object of endless possibility, the boys’ own adult lives are the virtually indistinguishable sort described by Malvina Reynolds’ “Little Boxes” - they’re all doctors, and lawyers and business executives, “and they all look just the same”- or, at least, they sound and think the same, as do their wives.

Ms. Pittard tries to differentiate the adult boys sometimes (this one’s wife leaves him for another man, this one’s down on his luck and still smoking weed), but these token marks of individuality can’t override the groupthink and the grouplife that the “we” narration creates, as here:

“At the end of the day, it gets no simpler, no less complicated than to admit that this is our life. This is our home. … This is our bedroom. … On the other side of the bedroom door is our wife, about to come in, about to join us and swap her day clothes for pyjamas. … Tonight we will sleep, perhaps holding one another, perhaps not … hoping, simply, to wake up to go about our day, to cover the pool finally tomorrow and admit the end of summer.”

Sometimes it seems that the purpose of this unconventional narrative choice, the “we” narrator, is a means of satirizing the mindless sameness of the suburban folk who live in Ms. Pittard’s mid-Atlantic anytown. This it certainly does, but the suggestion of satire and the implication of uniformity sit awkwardly with the boys’ account of their world of bland pool parties as also improbably full of perverts and sad sacks: rapists, pedophiles, alcoholics, dead and suicidal mothers, misogynist onanists.

Perhaps the idea here is the old chestnut that perversion and dysfunction are as commonplace in the suburbs as pool parties and nagging stay-at-home wives, but this is well-trod ground for fiction and Ms. Pittard’s “Fates” doesn’t do anything with suburban dystopia that Tom Perrotta’s “Little Children,” Rick Moody’s “The Ice Storm,” AMC’s “Mad Men,” Showtime’s “Weeds,” John Duigan’s “Lawn Dogs” or David Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” haven’t already.

The other downside of the collective narration is its grammatical awkwardness: “We were boys, after all, which means we were creeps,” Ms. Pittard writes, but a few sentences later, this group of many, separate, individual creeps seems to have coalesced into one mega-creep with one body when they refer to “their face” and then “our imagination.”

And this confused use of the “we” narrator finds an unfortunate echo in the book’s abundance of vague, poetic-y expressions (thinking about Nora by themselves, the boys report, “our stomachs ached from an emptiness both primitive and prehistoric” - though, don’t “primitive” and “prehistoric” mean about the same thing? And what exactly is “primitive and prehistoric” about the boys’ stomachache for Nora?) and sloppy, syllogistic logic (“Of course, we knew Sissy wasn’t a tramp because we knew Kevin Thorpe would be the first to be alone with her.”).

Add to that its excess of platitudinous statements (“How simple, how true.”; “It was that simple, that easy, that fun.”; “The memories were neither real nor not real. The memories were neither fond, nor not fond.”)

All these infelicities, of course, might be chalked up to Ms. Pittard’s satirizing of the boys’ verbal and intellectual shoddiness as dull suburbanites. Except that the boys’ clumsy language is the sum of the book and it’s not particularly entertaining or instructive, even taken as satire. So, while the joke might nominally be at the boys’ expense, it’s ultimately at the reader’s.

It’s the reader who has to slog through the shoddy prose and the absurd lives the boys concoct for the vanished Nora: She’s either, they imagine, an asexual stay-at-home mom in Arizona married to a caricature called “the Mexican,” or a beer-drinking lesbian with cancer living in Mumbai, involved with an equally caricaturish Indian tattoo artist who shares with “the Mexican” a taste for Tontoesque mystical pronouncements.

These narratives are not meant to be taken seriously - they’re too thick with ridiculous, fiction-y details while simultaneously shallow: Nora remains a cipher even as she’s festooned with large breasts, henna tattoos, a brush with tragedy (her life in Mumbai) or, as in her Arizona iteration, three babies, a tan and a mint garden; the boy authors of these lives, meanwhile, come off as D-grade MFA-ers.

No, the point of these tales is not in themselves: Instead, they demonstrate what an integral role fiction-making plays in even the most uninspired lives - how reflexive a response storytelling is in the face of the baffling and how it can help even the least artistic of minds recoup losses. This is not to say that this lesson is taught with any particular beauty in “The Fates Will Find Their Way,” but it’s an important lesson nonetheless.

Emily Colette Wilkinson, who lives in Williamsburg, Va., was the 2008 winner of the Virginia Quarterly Review’s Young Reviewers Contest.

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