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Books Thu Jul 18 2013
Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward, an upcoming release by Chicago-based author Ryan Bartelmay, is as much an exploration of dependence as it is a novel. Following multiple protagonists as they struggle through decades of familial problems, Bartelmay presents human existence in units: the family, the couple, and the isolated. In so doing, his text constantly begs the question, What do people really want from people?
Protagonist Chic Waldbeezer is, externally, the pinnacle of 1950’s lifestyle: a plant worker (in the factory where his grandfather worked) who married his sweetheart, Diane, two years after he graduated high school. Internally, however, Chic is hopelessly lost, driven primarily by physical impulses. Detached from his family and lusting after his brother’s wife, Lijy, Chic seems to be in crisis throughout the entire text, attempting to negotiate his own desires with his expected identities as father and husband.
Elsewhere in Illinois lives Mary Norwood, the book’s second protagonist. Mary, like Chic, is directionless, but is instead driven by emotional dependence. (This is not so subtly conveyed when, toward the beginning of the text, she drunkenly asserts, “I need someone to take care of me. I need someone to take care of me. I need someone to take care of me.”) When her husband of less than a year (husband #10), Green Geneseo, suffers a stroke that leaves him paralyzed and unable to speak, the juxtaposition of physical and emotional dependence proves especially compelling.
The title of the novel is a strong indicator of its tone. Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward is at once playful and fatalistic, implicative of an aimless trajectory. Such directionlessness is the defining characteristic of the protagonists within, which raises the question: can a novel successfully be built around the theme of aimlessness?
While lack of direction is certainly an element of genuine human experience, what the debate boils down to is what it is we are looking for when we open a book. By this I mean to suggest that literature, indeed narrative in general, derives itself from the human desire for sequential and intelligible meaning. We delight in the belief that each action promises a consequence. Without consequence, there are no stakes; without stakes, no tension. Meanwhile, many moments in the book that could be rife with tension are resolved with disappointing immediacy. That is not to say that Chic’s life is easy—Bartelmay by no means hesitates to ‘kill his darlings’—but there are multiple instances when the opportunity to raise stakes is ignored. The sheriff almost makes an arrest; the cab driver almost outruns that car.
Because moments of action are quickly resolved, the characters’ inner monologues ultimately compose the bulk of the book; however, as most of the characters lack confident agency, their thought processes turn into exhausting paragraphs of hemming and hawing. Moments that could be dramatic in their concision are instead dulled by imprecise musings. Mary’s inner monologues in particular are expansive, consuming pages at a time, circling the same point without ever progressing. This is an especially troublesome hurdle in her case, as inner complexity would be essential to stirring empathy for a woman who won’t help her paralyzed husband off the ground.
This is where Onward falls short. The characters are mired in either unfounded or absent motivation, a quality that deprives the majority of their actions of meaningful leverage.* It is for this reason that Onward feels more frequently like vignettes in a vacuum than a complete novel.
That is not to say that these vignettes are without merit. Playful and specific imagery is without a doubt Bartlemay’s strong suit: A son’s curiosity manifested in the unraveling of a baseball; “Our Baby Lives Here” scrawled across a pregnant wife’s stomach in permanent marker; a honeymoon encounter between a dominatrix and a virgin—details that are lighthearted and amusing.
Bartelmay’s portrayal of the chronological landscape, too, is intriguing. Humorous details like a beatnik who “wasn’t a communist, despite his admiration for a Russian weightlifter,” convey the tone of the era. The scene in which Chic attempts to compensate for his familial failures by digging a swimming pool poignantly captures the thing-centric mentality of the fifties; an era when ideals of family and home were so often reified into gadgets and gizmos. And, as the book progresses, Bartelmay subtly hints at changing cultural times: Lijy opens a health food store; Green debates whether he is more of a Ross or a Joey.
As enjoyable as these imaginative moments are, they lack the connective tissue to give them meaning in terms of the novel as a whole. They are as isolated and detached as the characters that live within them. With these moments few and far between, strung together by ever-shifting characters and plot, the story struggles to gain momentum. Ultimately, Onward Toward What We’re Going Toward could be a successful study of aimlessness were it not so aimless itself.
*[SPOILER ALERT] The most specific example I can provide of this unfounded motivation is Lijy’s plot to convince her husband and Chic’s brother, Buddy, that her child from another man is Chic’s bastard son. Both Chic and Lijy vaguely assert that such a scenario will hurt Buddy less—“if he thinks it’s your baby, he’s not going to leave me. He absolutely can’t leave me,” she writes in a letter to Chic—but neither provides any concrete explanation as to why piling betrayal by one’s brother on top of a wife’s infidelity is a wise or productive lie. Meanwhile, in Buddy’s point of view, he wishes it had been anyone but Chic, thereby confirming that the lie is harmful. It feels as though Bartelmay wanted the plot point, but couldn’t concoct justification for it. Because this lie acts as the crux of much of the rest of the book, such a large motivational gap inhibits the reader’s ability to believe or empathize with Chic or Lijy, and thus significantly impairs his or her ability to enter the world of the novel.