Must Reads

3 Must Read Offbeat Novels: ‘A Million Heavens,’ ‘The Investigation,’ ‘Office Girl’

From a young man in a coma inhabiting an afterlife, to one year in the lives of two young lovers.

Vigil For A Boy

A Million Heavens by John Brandon

The two most important characters in John Brandon’s novel, A Million Heavens, have very little to say. After all, one of them is dead, and the other is comatose. The rest of Brandon’s loose New Mexico community take their cues from this listless pair, and during the course of the book reexamine their own lives in the context of these prematurely stricken young men.

Brandon’s previous novel, the wonderful Citrus County, follows a troubled, laconically cunning loner named Toby and the people he pulls into his amorally skewed orbit. His actions create a tense, occasionally desperate atmosphere that is only relieved by Brandon’s easy humor. Citrus County is accessible without ceding intelligence. Toby’s teacher, Mr. Hibma, wishes elitism would come back into style.

Brandon’s new book is something different. Where Citrus County felt like a coiled spring, the pace of A Million Heavens is sedate, diffused among a dozen or so characters. The book begins with an adolescent piano prodigy named Soren, who is in a coma. His father is a constant presence at the boy’s side. The doctors can’t find much wrong with him, other than his resolute unresponsiveness. Springing up near Soren’s hospital bed is a vigil of people praying for his recovery. Among them is Cecelia, former guitarist for the local band Shirt of Apes. Her bandmate Reggie recently passed away, and she finds solace in the silent community. Another regular is Dannie, a woman hiding from her past, trying to figure out how to make a new life, and where exactly her younger sort-of-boyfriend Arn fits into it.

Reggie, for his part, finds himself in a strange sort of afterlife. He wakes up in an empty salon, complete with piano and a bar. He’s gently prodded by an unknown force with images from his days among the living. “Someone wanted him to indulge so he was refusing. He wanted to think about what he wanted to think about. He wanted to think about nothing and wait in peace for whatever he was waiting for.”

The town of Lofte, like Reggie, isn’t long for this world. The desert, coupled with the harsh realities of capitalism on the outskirts, is slowly swallowing up this forgotten hamlet. The tumbleweeds have tumbleweeds. The well-meaning but ineffectual Mayor Cabrera has a plan to save his constituency, but it hinges on convincing a megachurch to set up shop in Lofte. He’s done some Internet research on the group, and it doesn’t seem like a particularly dangerous variety of cult. Cabrera’s solution may be preposterous, but at least it’s a solution. The local gas-station owner deals with encroaching oblivion by venturing out into the desert for 40 days and 40 nights, without much of a plan beyond surviving. It’s an act of faith, and, at the end of the day, not a more useless reaction than that of the Mayor.

A sense of extreme loneliness pervades A Million Heavens, despite its ensemble cast. Most of these characters are, spiritually speaking, kicking a dented can down a dusty road. “A million heavens waited,” Brandon writes. “A million people scuffling around the desert hoping not to see their heaven too soon, failing to believe in the afterlives that awaited them and would have them in time, whether they kicked and screamed or closed their eyes and sighed, whether they tried to do good and could not or tried to do bad and succeeded.”

Because A Million Heavens has what seems like a million narrators, the book lacks momentum—its pace is opposite that of Citrus County. Still, the slow, artfully mundane burn is right for the town of Lofte, a forgotten satellite deep in the American wasteland. There are no murders, impending apocalypses, vampires, or SoHo postgrads figuring out where their empty lives went wrong. Brandon’s characters encounter no big revelation or turn of the screw. In the face of such vast emptiness, these people struggle to find meaning, and take it wherever they can—even if it’s at a vigil for a boy none of them have ever met.

—Drew Toal

The Underdog

The Investigation by Philippe Claudel

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The Investigator doesn’t know whether to laugh or to cry. So he does neither, and instead soldiers on in the face of what’s clearly an impossible assignment.

The nameless private eye is the hero of Philippe Claudel’s The Investigation, and as this darkly comic, pleasingly strange novel opens, he’s arrived in a city (also nameless) that’s home to an electronics plant known as the Enterprise. The factory has recently experienced a series of suicides. The Investigator’s job: find out why.

He senses almost immediately that he’s not going to get much cooperation from the general public. In an otherwise deserted bar, the Investigator orders a rum toddy, only to learn from a surly waiter that a temperamental till won’t process the transaction. Later, an officious hotel manager agrees to rent him a room, but not before he’s committed to memory the inn’s long list of dos and don’ts.

If the ubiquitous red tape is annoying, other local customs are downright bizarre. Near his hotel, he notices that pedestrians move in preternaturally orderly fashion, as if, Claudel writes, “someone somewhere had instituted foot-traffic rules and no one dared go the wrong way.” These same people use phones that don’t quite look like phones, and they never go out at night. And though the Enterprise makes what Claudel describes as “innocuous communications products and the software to implement them,” nobody seems to know how to work a computer. The city’s lawmen, meanwhile, practice an up-close-and-personal brand of policing; after the Investigator accidentally damages a towel dispenser in a public bathroom, an officer forces him to carry out a rigorous reenactment of his misdeed.

As he goes about his work, the Investigator will be betrayed by his body in ways both comic and tragic. He will, in a moment of desperation, don women’s underwear. He will find himself in a waiting room, flipping through magazines with neither text nor images. He will come to doubt his assignment, powers of perception and identity. “I’m supposed to be the Investigator,” he says, “but am I not myself the center of another Investigation, one that goes well beyond me, one whose stakes are much more vital than those of the one I’m conducting?”

A novelist and filmmaker who lives in France, Claudel has crafted a story that often feels like Kafka’s The Trial turned on its head. The Investigation is also a deconstruction of the detective story, a metafictional rumination on the nature of communication in the Internet age and an allegory that might be assigned any number of meanings. At various points, the novel worries over everything from the decay of language to the environment.

But Claudel’s penchant for cramming a lot of ideas into a small space doesn’t diminish the underdog appeal of the character at the heart of his novel. The Investigator is “a disappearing person, no sooner seen than forgotten,” Claudel writes. “His aspect was as insubstantial as fog, dreams, or an expelled breath, and in this he resembled billions of human beings.”

—Kevin Canfield

A Year in the Life

Office Girl by Joe Meno

If Office Girl took place in Brooklyn, it would run the risk of being labeled a “hipster romance.” It might get overlooked by the public anyway, but as it happens the story is set in Chicago and the word “hipster” doesn’t show up once. At times, it does feel like a hipster romance, but Joe Meno is smarter than that. Despite all signs to the contrary—the cover features what looks like an Urban Outfitters model riding a bike, drawings and black-and-white photographs are peppered throughout inside, and the protagonist is named, preciously, Odile—it is far more serious than it might appear to be. Meno's book is an honest look at the isolation of being a creative person in your 20s living in a city.

The deadpan style and cast of two sad 20-somethings could remind readers of Tao Lin or other young ironists, but Meno is actually a small-press veteran with more than 10 published books, including some plays. Odile and the book's other focus, Jack, don’t meet until nearly halfway into the book, which allows for the independent growth of each—Office Girl, even though named for the girl, feels more like the story of one year in the lives of two young people, rather than a tale of two wanderers fated to meet and fall in love, or the touching story of the genesis of a couple. The year is 1999, and Meno refers to the Bill Clinton era and Y2K in just the right ways, often nailing both in the same sentence, as when Odile passes a newspaper box, reads the headline, and reacts: "The idea of being impeached for getting a bj makes Odile crazy. Maybe in the next millennium people won't be so worked up about screwing."

Cody Hudson’s hand-drawn illustrations, which relate to the text only laterally, add a charm akin to the small doodles that break up long New Yorker articles. The photos by Todd Baxter add a third level to the package, helping to make Meno’s book feel more like an artwork, even though the photos occasionally just depict the text in a goofily obvious manner. (Early on, Odile comes home to find her roommate Isobel topless, wearing a storm trooper helmet, fooling around with her boyfriend; the scene is funniest left to the imagination, but at page right is, indeed, a stark photo of a topless girl in a storm trooper helmet.)

A host of believable supporting characters make entrances and exits, including the many interchangeable men and women with whom Odile and Jack go through the physical motions. The key to Meno’s wisdom is that none of these characters delivers any sort of life lesson to our hapless heroes. Odile and Jack are directionless, artistic in a half-assed way, mistake-prone, and they aren’t about to find free help from anyone. While Odile seeing a married man is nothing shocking, Jack, only 24, gets divorced from his wife in the first few pages. It’s a detail that makes him appear tragic, a detail you wouldn't expect, that elevates the book from its more cloying details, like a party at which people dress up as cardboard buildings, or a zine called YOU AND YOUR VERY INTERESTING BEARD.

The “artistic” things Odile and Jack do are more interesting to themselves than they might be to real people. (Or in some cases, the hobbies are interesting, but don't feel like something real people would do, such as Jack's ongoing audio project, for which he records urban sounds.) Where the book shines is in the opposite: the mundane, solitary moments each character suffers through, described pitch-perfectly by Meno. “Odile yawns on the telephone and enters the appropriate answers into the appropriate fields on the computer and then it is almost eleven a.m., which is when she likes to walk by the supply closet to steal something: anything.” Or here’s Jack talking to his wife Elise as she walks out the door to move to Berlin, but basically he’s talking to himself because she’s barely listening: “I’m really going to miss your braces … They’re kind of my favorite part about you … I don’t know too many other people who are in their twenties and who decide to get braces … You know, we were married for less than a year. Your mom was right: we were way too young.” There are even darker moments. Jack kicks his wife’s cat in frustration as she’s leaving, and at some point Odile and Jack each get hit by a car while on their bike. Meno’s little novel is accurate about the random brutality of even the uneventful lives of young lovers.

—Daniel Roberts