Some of the Parts
by T. Cooper
(Akashic Books, 2002)
of the Parts" starts out promising: a character named
Isak accidentally finds employment at a Coney Island freak
show - the act is trying to make audience members guess
whether Isak is man or woman. But before the reader finds
out, the chapter ends and there is a new narrator, and we
are drawn into a new situation. There are four narrators
in all: Arlene, a craft shop owner in Providence, is benign
and literal-minded and slightly out of it, in a sweet way,
sort of floating through life aimlessly. Her disorganized
daughter Taylor, beautiful and manipulative, gets by on
being coveted by others and accepting what they have to
offer, while she remains sarcastic and detached, sort of
floating through life aimlessly. Arlene's brother Charlie,
who has just started to get sick with AIDS, manages to hang
onto his stereotypically queenly sense of humor but is starting
to get depressed, is addicted to Beverly Hills 90210 and
is floating through what is left of his life aimlessly.
Charlie's roommate and close friend Isak, who puts her androgynous
looks to use at the freak show, turns to the occasional
hustle, then abandons Charlie in New York for a one way
ticket back to her hometown, LA, not sure what she'll do
there, floating through life aimlessly.
Clearly these characters have a lot in common. A little
too much in common. To start off with, the novel might have
been stronger if its four voices were more distinct from
one another. The casual tone that they share, while often
quite readable, is familiar to the point of being generic.
You've read something similar many times in contemporary
literary journals: the speaker is cool and blunt, tries
not to be flowery but becomes selectively poetic, offering
significant details from psychology-laden landscapes and
cynical observations on the nuances of social interaction,
at times getting almost hyper-aware.
The narrative voice would not necessarily be problematic
if the novel's plot was better developed. While Cooper has
invented a unique cast, enticing the reader to stick around
and find out what happens next, not all that much happens
next, except that the characters swap coasts and cities.
The main source of tension and conflict for each character
is a vague sense of dissatisfaction that is just as vague
at the close of the novel as it is at the start. Conversations,
while realistic, are often extremely banal, and so slow
as to seem like they're moving in real time. "I guess
I just get to the place where I figure out that the answer
is that there is no answer," says Isak. "And you
let it go and do the best you can, try not to make the same
mistakes over and over again. And that's all you can do."
Cooper may have captured how people really speak, but has
not managed to edit in a way that captures what is most
interesting to read. As the pages turn, one gets the feeling
that the author was not quite sure how to steer her story.
-- Christine Leahy