I picked up The Lola Quartet in a little bookstore’s closing sale in Montgomery, Alabama. I ached for the little business, blinking out of existence just as my brother-in-law and his wife moved within walking distance, but I couldn’t help but pick up a few half-priced impulse purchases. I loved Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and hoped I’d love this novel, one of her earlier books, just as much.
I bought The Lola Quartet in Montgomery, but read it in a blankly comfortable Knoxville hotel room as the kids slept, and finished it on the monotonous interstate of Tennessee and Virginia.
The book is literary noir but between the whodunit details breathe a rich setting and striking questions about identity, community, and loneliness. Mandel’s South Florida reminds me of nothing so much as the world of The Orchid Thief, lush and quietly malevolent.
These days we are in the middle of buying our first ever house, and I grew uneasy as the protagonist Gavin takes a job with his sister, who sells foreclosed homes in the wake of the 2008 economic collapse. Gavin, long a New York apartment dweller, considers houses “[t]hese enormous anchors that people tied to their lives,” but his radical alienation is hardly the solution.
Mandel returns again and again to the sameness of everywhere — “Only the names of the towns varied, and the towns were like envelopes with all the contents the same.” Here is the stage where evil lurks behind closed doors, where abuse, neglect and addiction run rampant. It’s a hypnotically awful world, and it is, of course, our own, where every stop on the interstate offers the same fast food chains, where every suburban house is its own hermetically sealed mystery.
Gavin, like Binx Bolling in The Moviegoer, seems more aware of this hollowness than those around him, and embarks on a quest that, for a time, brings meaning to his crumbling life. The people he encounters, in their late 20s and early 30s like me, are all frantically or else numbly lonely. They come from estranged or indifferent families and, despite their best efforts, are well on the way to repeating the pattern. Mandel doesn’t offer an anecdote, or much hope for this old high school quartet and its hangers-on, but her dark conclusion, perhaps, suggests what we must work against:
“On either side of the highway the suburbs continued uninterrupted, a continuous centreless glimmering of lights, shadows of palm trees on parking lots, malls shining like beacons and he was nowhere, this could be any suburb on the edge of any city but it seemed to him that none of the cities had edges anymore, just a long slow reach across landscapes.”
In our lives and in our new house, we must work against this insidious encroachment. We must respect the uniqueness of the landscape in which we find ourselves and support the businesses and culture that make it unique. We must resist the empty beacons of mindless consumption, never letting our house or our habits become a financial anchor around our necks. Most importantly, we must open our home to the wholesome air and light, and welcome in those who find themselves on the anonymous fringes.