A reading response: contains spoilers
“Everyone deserves a vacation from himself, Owen Lerner thinks, on the last day of his.”
That’s the first line of Mary Kay Zuravleff’s Man Alive!, a tale of a contemporary suburban family life gone awry.
Owen gets just such a vacation from his role as both father and child psychiatrist when lightning --literally -- strikes.
Owen and family are finishing time away at Rehobeth Beach. While thinking lustfully about son Will and Will’s girlfriend Kyra, Owen puts a quarter in parking meter just as the sky cracks open. He is blown away. His body flips through the air. His mind soars as well:
“Like the space telescope, Owen is privileged with a view of our very origins. He is especially riveted by the formation of his family planet. Their connection to each other, his to them and his to the universe is mystical and mind-blowing. That he and Toni merged in pleasure, their combined emanations carrying all the was require to make three sentient being blows his mind away.”
Owen finds the experience so powerful, so blissful, so otherworldly, that he spends much of the rest of the novel seeking to rekindle the feeling. So, after learning to talk (coherently) and walk again, he fastens on . . . barbecuing!
Such a premise for a plot ordinarily would put me off – too cute, too witty, too weird. In the capable care of Zuraleff, I’m willing to play along. She’s smart, strikingly clever, so clever she can’t help herself from wit and word play of all kinds. She endows the Lerner family with the same humor, quick response and linguistic gymnastics she writes with, a trait that’s likely to appeal to similarly endowed word lovers and their admirers. She will appeal to those who appreciate exploring the alternative meanings of phrases such as “family planning,” “life savings,” and “what the flux.”
While I count myself an admirer, I’m aware of the risks Zuraleff takes. By drawing attention to wit, she could lose the story – or the reader.
She doesn’t lose me. I’m most struck by the liveliness of her writing, the way she ignites the interplay of literal and figurative meanings and images, and the zoom lenses she uses to cross distances between the expansive and the grounded.
Those three “sentient beings” – that Owen and wife Toni created are twins, Will and Ricky; and daughter Brooke. The three have interests conveniently appropriate to lightning strikes. Will studies robotics and electricity at Penn. Ricky studies mythology and applied mathematics at Duke. Brooke, whose gymnastic talents match the family’s verbal agility, is in high school at Bethesda- Chevy Chase. She had mastered both flipping through the air and balancing, two acts that are major motifs in the novel. She will find both ever more challenging as the family adjusts and readjusts.
It’s Ricky who administers CPR to the rhythm of “barbecue, spareribs; barbecue, spareribs,” and thus earns some of the credit for bringing dad back--- Man Alive! Credit from everyone but dad who would like to get back to being nearly dead -- and transcendent.
In so doing both Owen and Ricky shift the delicate family dynamics. Will, the competitive firstborn twin, the one most favored by Dad, loses his primary status and starts to act out – drinking, drugging and hooking up. Ricky, Mom’s favorite and usually Will’s shadow, gains confidence, excels and becomes the darling of his mythology professor and her husband.
Brooke loses her balance, falling for and then being ensnared by a Latin boyfriend. A diplomat’s son, he’s creepily controlling and darkly dangerous.
Tony, in addition to taking on all the parenting as well as caregiving for her husband, continues her job placing candidates in roles as college presidents. Through all her caring, she is disturbed by a suggestive reference about Will’s girlfriend Kyra that Owen made while babbling at his most unfiltered.
But it’s Owen’s unpredictability that is both most amusing and most disturbing. While Tony provides for the family by head hunting, he’s in no condition to continue as head shrinker. Suddenly, he’s crazy for sex. And like those with Asperger’s, he develops a narrow, esoteric interest that he wants to tell everyone about; Owen goes whole hog into barbequing – building pits, creating rubs and marinades, roasting whole animals, raising chickens, even considering barbecuing as a new form of therapy – one he considers better than the pills he once famously pushed.
He resembles his former patients with his crisscrossed wiring and begins to look at others as “neurotypicals,” a term, often used by the Autism/Asperger community to describe those outside it. He no longer makes eye contact and talks at, rather than converses with, others. He has some heightened sensitivity.
He tries holding on to the transformative experience, has difficulty giving up
the fading Lichtenberg figures or lightning flowers, those fractal-like figures that trace his inside circulation on the outside of his skin. Increasingly strange behavior endangers Brooke when he climbs on the roof of his home.
|Lichtenberg figures or lightning flowers|
What can bring him back?
Time and family dynamics.
In time: Owen starts to come around: One morning he asks: “You know what’s weird?” His response: “I’ve lost weird. Some people lose weight or their keys. I’ve lost weird.”
In family: Following classic family systems patterns, a shift is counterbalanced by another shift. When Will loses it, lashing out against an innocent bystander, getting kicked out of school and putting himself in danger of criminal proceedings, Owen responds returning to his role as parent and counselor. It’s at this point Owen’s view of the family as planetary constellation starts to be subsumed by Toni’s fleeting view of it as web.
“Toni leaves her little office for the kitchen. Out the back window, a spider web shines with dew, and she studies the web’s center because Ricky once told her that every spider family weaves its telltale badge dead center, a unique pattern of identity. The outskirts of the web are woven for adaptability. “
As she reflects on it later, she was “visualizing their family within a web, where each member weaves strong, supple connections one to another and out to the world.”
This lens zooming is further underscored by opposing sentiments that the run throughout the novel: You’re on your own/We’re all in this together. Such seesawing between polar sentiments can be felt in any family at this stage -- with college age children soon to be on their own and the youngest then to follow. Here they are exaggerated by trauma. And by season. As Thanksgiving approaches , that most family of all the traditions and Owen tries to explain what he felt, what he now feels.
“Words can’t express what he went through, but he’s getting closer…. The truth is, his family memories are the most cherished, and recounting the microscopic clarity of their features and flaws reconstitutes some of the vivid joy he felt. Jumbled sensations and time travel allowed for concentrated happiness. The trick, he’s beginning to understand, is to be able to get some of that jolt on the ground, in the dilution of daily life, to taste the roasted beast in a suggested serving size.”
Simply put, he begins to understand both the limitations and the opportunities of ordinary living, of being -- -- a man alive.