The Road Not Taken
By Miriam R. Kramer
It is very difficult to write about love well. For every realistic, flawed love story, there are hundreds of well-meaning, gooey fabrications: kitschy stories that come neatly wrapped like a box of heart-shaped chocolates. Neither All the Ugly and Wonderful Things, by Bryn Greenwood, nor Dark Matter, by Blake Crouch, fall into the latter category. While diverse in approach and setting, they both celebrate unorthodox and seemingly mundane love, elevating ultimate connection through memorable fiction.
Bryn Greenwood has penned a book that I might not have read based on a two-or three-sentence synopsis. Her compassionate, clear-sighted writing hooks you on this reality, one that rings true despite its lack of conformity. Greenwood’s narrative path eschews the road taken by the dramedies littering our cinematic and literary landscapes. It is a singular path, as imperfect and difficult to understand as life’s contradictions and inconsistencies. It is also a beautiful love story, one that lives up to its title by encompassing the ugly and wonderful things life has to offer.
Greenwood splices her unconventional, compulsively readable novel with flashing intervals of different narrative voices, including those of her protagonists. She begins with a young female cousin’s view of five-year-old Wavonna Quinn, the daughter of a drug dealer, Liam, and a mentally disturbed and obsessive-compulsive mother, Val. Wavonna has been dropped off at her well-meaning aunt’s house in Tulsa, Oklahoma. She quickly upsets routine with her obstinate ways, defensiveness, and refusal to speak. While not causing harm, she refuses to abide by the average rules governing her aunt’s household. Yet her cousin, an older child, sees Wavonna with open, empathetic eyes, admiring her quiet rebellion against a normal life thrust upon her.
Wavy, who resembles a tiny blond angel, has grown up in the opposite of heaven. She recounts her own story of growing up in an uncertain, violent world, one in which her defenses and instincts to protect herself and her younger brother from neglect and harm are misunderstood. She never knows whether Good Mama or Scary Mama will prevail in her house. Scary Mama draws scalding baths for her daughter to clean her and randomly forbids her to eat foods. She sticks her fingers in Wavy’s mouth to get out “dirty” food and pours Listerine on her tongue to clean it, forcing Wavy to eat secretively out of trash cans at night. Scary Mama warns her against opening her mouth and letting her father Liam “get in,” seeing the mouth as a dirty place where infections can take root. So Wavy mostly refuses to speak. At other times her mother, Val, is extremely depressed and close to comatose, forcing Wavy to try to keep her baby brother clean and fed as she grows older. Her indifferent father, Liam, moves them to a farm near his new meth lab, where Wavy must fend for herself as she moves towards adolescence.
On her first day at the farmhouse, Wavy goes out into the nearby meadow, where she sees someone she calls The Giant ride his motorcycle up the gravel road, wrecking his bike and skidding as he sees her. He mutters, stunned, “You’re not an angel?” I thought later of the scene in Jane Eyre when she rises out of nowhere as Mr. Rochester rides by, making him fall off his horse and sprain his ankle. Rochester says, “When you came on me in Hay Lane last night, I thought unaccountably of fairy tales, and had half a mind to demand whether you had bewitched my horse.” Similarly, when Wavy goes to help the large man lying in the road with broken bones, she recounts “I don’t know why I wasn’t afraid. Maybe because he was so big. Bigger than everyone who made me feel small.” She also thinks to herself “His eyes were so soft, I was sure he wouldn’t get inside me like an infection. Not like Liam and his hard blue eyes.” In coming to the aid of Jesse Joe Kellen, a mechanic who does errands for her father, she feels empowered through meeting one of the first truly kind people she has known in her life.
The story of the stubborn Fairy and the tender Giant is a long and often-fractured fairy tale, a narrative mosaic they piece together with the outside observations of family and friends. It is a tale that temporarily upsets all conventions.
Blake Crouch’s well-written, fast-moving Dark Matter excites and provokes the reader as a science fiction thriller that presents love in another light: one that may be the result of millions of choices we make, and one that is possible the best compromise we can ever make.
Crouch’s protagonist, Jason Dessen, teaches physics at a local college in Chicago. He lives there in a brownstone with his wife, Daniela, an art teacher, and his teenage son, Charlie. Jason had the drive and ability to become a groundbreaking physicist until his wife, who was a celebrated up-and-coming artist, got pregnant with their son, who needed all their attention when he was born prematurely. He loves his wife and son dearly. While they don’t make a lot of money, they have their health and a good life.
Having chosen not to focus his genius through devoting all his time and energy to pure research, Jason sometimes wonders what life would have been like had he not decided to get married and have a son. A colleague with whom he went to school just won the famed Pavia Prize. At a celebratory happy hour for his colleague in the beginning of fall, his friend tells Jason that Jason could have and should have won it himself. Jason notes to himself, “It’s the beautiful thing about youth. There’s a weightlessness that permeates everything because no damning choices have been made, no paths committed to, and the road forking out ahead is pure, unlimited potential. I love my life, but I haven’t felt that lightness of being in ages.” Jason also sees that Daniela sometimes wonders what life would have been like had she picked the path of a committed artist instead of her chosen direction as a wife, mother, and art teacher.
One Thursday night, when Jason leaves his cozy house with his wife cooking to have a drink with his scientist friend, he heads for home distracted, wondering what might have been. As a result, a cab almost hits him as he walks home distracted, having picked up ice cream for their traditional Thursday family night dinner. Jolted out of his revery, Jason looks up to see a shadow rushing towards him, a masked criminal who seems strangely familiar, someone who holds him up and forces him to drive to an abandoned power plant where he’s forced to change clothes with the stranger.
When the stranger asks him “Are you happy in your life?” he says “My life is great. It’s just not exceptional.” When he further questions Jason “Do you regret your decision to stay with Daniela and make a life with her?” Jason truthfully answers “No.” The stranger subsequently drugs him. Jason wakes up disjointed in a very different world, albeit one in which everyone recognizes him. In this version of reality he is a world-renowned scientist, the person he might have been, and a man who has devoted himself to research, never having married Daniela or had a child. He wants his old life back.
I have always been fascinated by the idea that multiple realities are created by each small choice we make in life, and that while each choice and action creates a new fork in the road, the other fork has also occurred in a separate universe. As Crouch presents this aspect of quantum physics, our mere observation of that choice or action collapses the alternate fork to our eyes as we move forward in time. From this viewpoint, all paths actually exist in a multiverse—not a universe. Unobserved, and therefore unaltered, life continues to unfold everywhere in different directions according to the millions of choices and actions that have taken place and are currently taking place. It is a dizzying and fascinating idea, one that Crouch manages to explore successfully through laymen’s terms. Jason Dessen finds himself in a life that he knew he might have had, one influenced by his past, while remembering the life that he has lived and loved until now.
Dark Matter evoked other literary and cinematic influences. In C.S. Lewis’s classic children’s fantasy The Magician’s Nephew, in which the main characters reach a grassy area filled with small, identical-looking ponds called “the world between the worlds.” In that first chapter of Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia, donning green or red rings allows the child characters to jump into or out of each pond, some of which were ancient worlds and others which were just being born. As a seven-year-old I was transfixed by this idea. Dark Matter also reworks the more simple Christmas movie classic It’s a Wonderful Life, in which Jimmy Stewart discovers what Bedford Falls might have been like had he never been born.
Crouch’s quick-reading, commercial and compassionate thriller also brings to mind the classic sci-fi film The Matrix, in which IT specialist (Thomas A. Anderson) by day and computer hacker by night (Neo) is offered the choice of viewing the world stripped of its usual veils through taking a “red pill.” Taking the “blue pill” would allow him to remain in a computer-designed existence known as the Matrix, one that keeps people in a linear, comprehensible world of denial. As a hacker interested in alternative realities, Neo picks the “red pill,” which takes him on a ride to a post-apocalyptic world he had not seen when wearing ordinary human blinders. Jason Dessen has not been given a choice. In Crouch’s story, he is forced to take a “red pill.”
In All the Ugly and Wonderful Things and Dark Matter, Bryn Greenwood and Blake Crouch have illuminated unusual paths towards achieving the profound human connection. May you enjoy these compelling and multifaceted stories of enduring love.