Douglas' characters don't care, and neither should we

Review Novel

July 02, 2006|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

The Catastrophist

Lawrence Douglas

Other Press / 276 pages / $24.95

[Los Angeles Times]

There's no reason to like Daniel Wellington, the thirty-something art history professor who is the main character of Lawrence Douglas' first novel, The Catastrophist. He's self-centered, arrogant, shallow and lazy - and those are his good qualities.

"In the morning I get up whenever," Daniel reveals in the opening paragraphs. "For breakfast I munch dry Fruit Loops while padding about the small living room in my underwear."

How did he reach this level of lassitude? It's simple: His wife, R., a beautiful but chilly woman, told him she was pregnant. That's when Daniel began navel-gazing in earnest. "Gradually," he informs us, "I lost the ability to distinguish between my original dread and my dread of my dread. My anxiety reflected back on itself, like an object trapped between two mirrors."

This is funny, right? Lean, not too much description, not too internal or philosophical, the voice of someone watching himself - a time-honored tradition in post-Freudian American literature. It's writing that leaves a lot unsaid, which is, granted, generally preferable to writing that tells too much. But there's not a lot of pause in the timing, or meaning to discover between the lines. Not many threads of love or compassion or interest or outrage tie Daniel or the novel's other characters to the world.

"I'm not cut out for deceit," Daniel claims, but his life, it turns out, is a collection of lies. There's the one he told the journalist in Berlin about his Holocaust-surviving parents. Or the one about how his marriage is just fine, even as he enters into affairs. And, of course, his tangled feelings for his soon-to-be-born baby who, he assures his wife, causes him no angst whatsoever (in spite of the apartment he rents in preparation for getting out).

When R. has a miscarriage, Daniel is - like a true hypocrite - deeply disappointed. But then his career takes off. He gets tenure. He flies to Berlin to give a lecture and meets Bettina, the woman of his dreams. He begins to construct his academic work around trips abroad, so that he can meet her in foreign cities. His wife gets pregnant again.

But, oops! Daniel's affair ends, the lie about his parents is exposed and a student responds to his e-mail come-on by sending it to the dean of faculty. In reaction, Daniel reads his wife's journal and works himself into a rabid froth of outrage over her infidelity. He hurls a piece of pottery at her. She throws him out of their 200-year-old farmhouse.

Douglas is a funny, smooth writer with a light touch. But the people here are silly, with such shallow roots in their emotional sod that any good writing slides off them. Douglas has wasted his momentum, his humor, even his beautiful giddiness on a bunch of people who don't seem worth the effort.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.