Author: Carolyn Parkhurst

2010, Doubleday

Filed under: Mystery, Literary


Carolyn Parkhurst’s third novel, The Nobodies Album, is a frustrating read. Parkhurst clearly has great talent, but the convoluted project she sets for herself makes genuine success an impossibility.

Nobodies centers around Octavia Frost, a novelist in the second (or possibly third) act of her career. As the novel opens, Octavia arrives in New York to personally hand over a hard copy of her new book, The Nobodies Album, which is a collection of endings from her previous novels, along with revised new endings. (The text of Octavia’s The Nobodies Album is included, chapter by chapter, interspersed throughout the novel.)

But before she can make it to her agent’s office, she gets a call: her son, Milo, a famous rock star, has been arrested for killing his fiancée. Octavia and her son have been estranged for four years, and it has something to do with the deaths of her husband and daughter (but those happened decades earlier).

Almost every passage in The Nobodies Album is, by itself, well made and beautiful. But the overall effect is like using exquisite tiles for a bad mosaic: if you step back to take in the whole work, it’s utterly disappointing compared to any individual piece.

Let me give you some good stuff first. In this scene, Octavia is watching the rough cut of a Cribs-like show, in which Milo shows off his house. The director (the male voice) asks for another take of something Milo was saying when a ringing phone interrupted.

“Okay,” says the male voice. “Milo, can you go back and walk across the living room again?”

He does. “We don’t have any room called the living room,” he says again. It takes him a minute to get back to the easy, jovial tone he had before. “That’s way too vague. We like to live in all our rooms.”

He’s talking in sound bites; the repetition of the moment makes it more obvious. Nothing he says is genuine or revelatory. I’m not going to find my child here. I’m just another member of the audience.

Octavia often reads into situations like this, interpreting things that people didn’t intend to communicate. It makes for a messy, realistic world, and, combined with her self-awareness, it makes for precise emotional nuance.

Parkhurst’s prose, when she uncorks a pure passage of it, can also be outstanding. Like this, Octavia ruminating on her craft:

“Write what you know” has always seemed unnecessarily limiting to me. I prefer instead, “Know what you write.” You want to inhabit a character who’s a banshee or a soil scientist or a Mesopotamian slave girl? Fine. Just make sure you get it right. Make it real; make it true; find the details to convince me.

But it’s impossible, isn’t it, to escape writing what you know? That slave girl may be able to pickle locusts and read omens in animal entrails, but she also knows how it feels to kiss your husband in the dark. When her hair is shorn so that her forehead can be branded, she will cry your twenty-first-century tears. And if she has a child, he will have your son’s eyes and his heartbreaking capacity for worry.

That’s an intricate passage, with prose that relies more on substance than style. Parkhurst excels at balancing this kind of complexity, which makes it even more frustrating that her various narrative threads never neatly intertwine.

The first problem is the murder mystery. Milo was found asleep on the couch in his not-a-living-room, with a case of amnesia, and covered in his dead fiancée’s blood. That’s too slam-dunk a setup for him to have actually killed her, but Parkhurst keeps him the prime suspect until the very end—even with great writing, that’s a dry well.

Beyond the plot’s predictability, there’s the simple fact that a formulaic mystery doesn’t fit Parkhurst’s style or talent, and it feels extraneous. The real mystery here should be the story of how Milo and Octavia became estranged, but when Parkhurst reveals the severely disappointing reason for that, it too falls flat.

Then there’s the issue of Octavia’s The Nobodies Album, the book of revised endings to her previous novels. It’s an interesting idea, and from a certain angle, a heartbreaking, beautiful one: Octavia wants to rewrite the way she dealt with the real-life events she used as inspiration for her novels. In some cases, she wants to revise the person she was at these times in her life, especially because of that person’s relationship with her son. It blossoms into a thoughtful, poetic throughline—one of Parkhurst’s great skills lies in creating baroque, outlandish metaphors that she manages not only to sustain, but to make compelling.

But Octavia has only written eight new pages for this book. Six endings, for a total of eight pages. And she’s flown to New York to deliver eight pages to her agent. The whole “book”—seven chapters and six revisions (she hasn’t even finished one yet)—weighs in at barely 50 pages. Her agent doesn’t say a word about it. That might seem like nitpicking, but it’s flagrantly unrealistic, and a writer (Parkhurst) touted for her “meticulous craft” (as the jacket copy says) needs not to step in such deep potholes.

Perhaps more detrimental is the clunky way Octavia’s book interacts with the narrative of Parkhurst’s novel. For instance, one early ending comes from an Octavia novel in which amnesia is spreading like a virus. It sounds cheesy, but it’s actually quite affecting and well done. But then, in the next chapter of Parkhurst, it’s revealed that Milo can’t remember the night of the murder.

It’s a hamfisted interaction between texts, instead of the nuanced, raw emotional ore that Parkhurst is obviously capable of delivering. Every time Parkhurst has to bend the fictional The Nobodies Album in order to serve a mundane plot point in her murder mystery, it’s a blunt reminder of the fictionality and artifice of this whole project, which is exactly the opposite of the intended effect.

In this way, it’s the structure of the novel that collapses. It’s the foundation and the load-bearing columns that shatter, leaving you with a pile of enjoyable shards.

Similar reads: The Missing, by Tim Gautreaux, is another literary/mystery hybrid that fails to put enough effort into its plot. The Odds, by Kathleen George, is one that gets it right.