Tuesday, April 30, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: A Review of "Steplings"

A Review of Steplings
Carrie Wasinger

Originally published in the October 2012 issue of Empirical

The tradition of the quest is a long and laurelled one. Joining narratives as disparate as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, the image of the journey is ubiquitous in western culture. We find it in song (“The Long and Winding Road”), folk tale (“Little Red Riding Hood”), and film (Stand By Me), in fine art and in pop culture. The journey is one of our most symbolic ways of describing the evolution of character, so it’s not surprising that we turn to tropes of travel when we describe the formative moments of youth. Teens “go off ” to college; middle age brings us nostalgic visions of that magical road trip taken in our twenties.

C.W. Smith is well aware of the symbolic underpinnings of this particular genre. Steplings is the story of Jason Sanborn, a 19-yearold Texas high school dropout still reeling from the premature death of his mother and his father’s recent remarriage, when he receives a “Dear John” letter from his long-time girlfriend, Lisa. On the day that fateful letter arrives, Jason learns he must also face charges of assault, charges that are a result of one very unfortunate night’s youthful indiscretions. Unwilling to meet this obligation with maturity and obsessed with getting Lisa back, Jason grabs his guitar and decides to hightail it to Austin where he intends, quite literally, to win Lisa back with a song. 

In a predictable turn of events, Jason’s precocious stepsister Emily, pissed off at a world that refuses to give an 11-year-old any sort of control whatsoever, invites herself along on Jason’s hitchhiking odyssey. In Austin lives the father who will certainly give Emily a more loving and understanding home than her mother seems capable of providing, or so Emily reasons with all the innocence of a pre-teen. So, equally naïve, equally doomed to failure, Jason and Emily embark on parallel quests. In the process, they negotiate that awkward, contrived relationship of circumstance that is known as step-siblinghood.

Like any family vacation, the quest narrative is always on the verge of imploding. It takes a deftly crafted, engaging, yet vulnerable protagonist to keep readers from falling into loud, whiny choruses of “are we there yet?” The Greek epic poet Homer–who may have invented the quest when he sent his hero Odysseus awandering on the high seas–knew this well. The prototype of lusty, arrogant, questing men, Odysseus is as clever as he is prideful, and much of the joy of reading The Odyssey comes from watching him alternately falling into traps and finagling his way out of them. That Odysseus is ultimately as worthy of the gods’ trust as of their rancor is never in question. He is a hero, but not a tragic one. His journey costs him, but we know he will succeed. And we know that the greatest trial of his quest will not be one of the monsters he encounters on the way, but his rendezvous with patient, crafty Penelope, the wife waiting for him at home.

Jason Sanborn is hardly an Odyssean hero. Though a perceptive, sensitive soul who is often justified in meeting the world with angst because it makes him feel like “a dog on a chain,” Jason nevertheless seems pathologically incapable of taking responsibility for his actions, and he isn’t really clever enough to make watching him avoid those responsibilities fun. With a blindness to consequences that would make even Oedipus cringe–particularly during the events that lead up to his breakup with Lisa–Jason is a perpetual adolescent, undirected and unconnected. As a result, Jason (unlike Odysseus) is nearly impossible to root for, even in his best moments.

Nevertheless, Jason’s too nice to truly dislike. Though he will steal his girlfriend’s car for no good reason, he won’t swear around his stepsister, despite the fact that he thinks of her as one of the top ten “tricks God had played on him in the past two years.” Smith could treat this kind of naïve arrogance as the flaw of character that Jason must defeat to grow into a man, but he doesn’t. Jason may come to a better understanding of other people on his quest, but at the end of the novel, it’s unclear whether or not he comes to a better understanding of himself. When the inevitable reunion with Lisa comes, it functions like an anti-climax, with Lisa simply telling Jason to “do the right thing.” He does, but mostly because she told him to.

Emily, on the other hand, is drawn with deep, intricate shades of fear, hope, sarcasm, and defensiveness. The complexity Jason lacks, Emily has in spades, and unlike Jason, she truly is victimized by parental neglect. Whether desperately defending her right to keep a stray cat she’s picked up on the journey or initiating her stepbrother into the mysteries of overnight library campouts, she’s a person who must carefully construct her life out of layers of coping. When her quest to track down her idolized, absent father results in predictable disillusionment, it’s absolutely heartbreaking.

Any good quest narrative will make the destination far less important than the substance of the journey itself. The book is not a particularly rousing adventure tale; the people the steplings meet on the way to Austin are neither monsters nor mentors. But this is not meant to be an epic journey. In quiet but evocative prose, Smith details the awkward, contemptuous, poignant, and utterly believable intimacy that grows between two aloof young people as their paths align. If at first Jason and Emily are thrown together by contrivance–their parents, both recovering alcoholics, met in AA–their relationship evolves via desperation–both feel alienated, left behind by others–and finally into real sympathy. By the end of the novel, when so many other relationships seem to be falling apart, Jason and Emily are two people who understand each other, who trust each other, and who look out for each other. They aren’t so much steps apart as they are siblings together.

Many of Steplings’ early chapters are devoted to events viewed through the eyes of Burl, Jason’s father, and Lily, Emily’s mother. Theirs is a kind of post-apocalyptic union, one born of the aftermath of his widowing and her divorce. As a story in itself, the awkward synthesis of their lives is compelling and devastatingly realistic. In the opening chapter, Smith indulges in a lengthy but pitch-perfect description of how a second marriage displaces the emotions of the first without erasing them, voiced through the conceit of kitchen appliances: “Lily brought to their marriage an enormous stainless steel Sub-Zero refrigerator, bumping the old GE out to the garage, where it now served as an auxiliary for cold drinks and ice and sat between stacks of cartons filled with. . . dishware and clothing and such.”

This displacement seems darkly humorous at first: Lily is simply a newer, more useful model of wifehood, brought in when the first one expires. It becomes truly chilling, however, when Lily’s version of events starts to dominate Burl’s. Although his father knows Jason has likely just gone AWOL and taken Emily along for the ride, Lily allows for the possibility that Jason has actually kidnapped her daughter–a narrative she refines and sells to the police, instigating a manhunt.

For a quest narrative Steplings is slow to achieve its footing. Burl and Lily’s story distracts from Jason and Emily’s, when it ought to offer an intriguing juxtaposition. Moreover, while Burl and Lily are believable as ill-fated spouses, and even single parents, neither is quite believable as a step-parent. Lily is far too willing to criminalize Jason, and Burl shows almost no knowledge of what makes Emily tick. For a novel that so thoroughly investigates the complexity of all other ties, Steplings makes step-parenting seem shallow and thoughtless.

Despite its flaws, Steplings is worth reading precisely because it puts siblinghood, a relationship too often neglected by serious literature, into the spotlight. Being a step-sibling is a very special, very unique state of being. In an era in which increasing numbers of young people are being asked to navigate through the blendings and reblendings of separation, divorce, and remarriage, it’s a relationship that art needs to explore. As Jason thinks during his last meeting with Emily, “he owed her an acknowledgment that they’d shared an adventure that neither would forget, no matter who or what they became.” This is the true climax of the novel: for an all-too-brief period of time, they were brother and sister against the world.

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