The Trajectory of Dreams, Nicole Wolverton

The Trajectory of Dreams, Nicole Wolverton

The Trajectory of Dreams, Nicole Wolverton

I’ve been sitting on my arc of Nicole Wolverton’s debut, The Trajectory of Dreams, for months now, wanting to wait and read it closer to the publication date.

You know that saying “good things come to those who wait”?  Yeah.

What a terrific read this was.  The first 20 or 30 pages take a bit of time in terms of settling into the story, but once you realize that the narrator, Lela White, isn’t quite right in the head and you adjust your mind to that, things zip along quite nicely while you watch her just disintegrate and spiral completely out of control.

Lela is a sleep lab technician who believes she has a “mission” to monitor astronauts’ sleep patterns.  Traumatized by the explosion of a shuttle when she was a child, she now firmly believes that her work will help prevent another shuttle disaster like the explosion of The Constitution (standing in for the Challenger here).  This “mission” involves sneaking into the homes of future shuttle astronauts and monitoring their sleeping patterns.  Lela believes that the astronauts must be “good sleepers”, and she is completely convinced that this is tied to both the safety of shuttle launches and the astronauts’ peace of mind—they must be good sleepers so that if the worst happens, they’ll never realize it because they’re asleep.

Needless to say…that’s a little disturbed.

Aside from the breaking and entering and watching people sleep, which is just creepy and tapped into one of my biggest paranoia issues thankyouverymuch, Lela seemingly manages to function normally otherwise—she works at the sleep lab, volunteers at the library, and no one appears to realize that there’s anything wrong with her—she comes across to her co-workers as diligent, if introverted.  Of course, they don’t know about her “mission”, and there’s the slight problem that Lela’s perceptions are not skewed right—it’s possible that her co-workers certainly do realize she’s at least odd, but it’s just impossible to know.  As things progress, we begin to get some inkling that at least two people, the librarian she volunteers for and the janitor at the sleep clinic, have at least some idea that Lela is somehow fragile.  The reader, however, gets a better idea of just how screwed up Lela is because the story is told through her distorted vision: her preparations to assassinate any astronaut whose sleeping habits don’t live up to her standards, her conversations with her cat, Nike, who she truly believes is communicating with her, her odd ways of relating to people, and her obsession with the space program and the astronauts.  So when she encounters a Russian cosmonaut, Zory, on loan to the U.S. Space program for the next shuttle launch, we know this is potentially problematic for both of them, especially when she freaks out because he seems very interested in her and she believes any involvement with him will jeopardize her “mission”.

Lela is quite drawn to Zory precisely because of who he is—he’s both her catnip and her kryptonite and their developing relationship makes reality tilt another few degrees.  As their relationship progresses, she gets more and more frantic about completing her “mission”.  Added to this mix is an annoying coworker, Trina, who unceremoniously decides to temporarily move in with Lela after a tornado damages her apartment.  Trina reminds Lela a little too much of her mother, and Lela’s relationship with her mother was, shall we say, fraught.  Plus there is Max, a lonely janitor from the sleep clinic with whom Lela has been exchanging sex for information—his reaction to being replaced by the attractive cosmonaut isn’t exactly appropriate either.

This is a complex novel, to be sure.  Lela is not just an unreliable narrator, she’s a woman who is thisclose to a complete psychotic break.  What she tells us may be the truth, it may be hallucination, it may be her spinning things, it may be lies, but it will always be suspect because it’s her perception of the truth, and Lela’s truth is looking at reality in the rearview mirror.  The layering here is impressive as we see Lela’s mind go in one direction while she’s thinking, then shift into a more socially acceptable gear and she talks herself into the correct response or behavior for a given situation.  So while the plot is actually quite linear, there’s some jumping around as Lela experiences flashbacks to the shuttle explosion that appears to have started this, to fights with her mother, to memories of going to the library as a child, to a current hallucination, to a somewhat normal conversation with Mrs. Gerhardt where she says and does one thing while thinking another.  It all blends together to present a chilling portrait of a truly broken woman.

In some ways, I found reading this a paradox.  On the one hand, I was fascinated by Lela’s mental disorders and became absorbed in experiencing the narrative through her eyes.  But I also found this rather painful to read—and sad.  Because Lela feels very much like she has to be alone, except she doesn’t, really.  She has a positive relationship with Mrs. Gerhardt, the librarian.  Mrs. Gerhardt has known Lela since she was a child, and knew her father, and while she’s quite elderly, she has definitely formed a close bond with Lela.  Their relationship is a beacon of hope for Lela—Mrs. Gerhardt seems to keep Lela from spinning completely out of control; she may not exactly understand the extent to which Lela’s mind has tilted, but she knows her well and is obviously fond of her.  I found it sad that she couldn’t really do more to help Lela, but it was also quite realistic.

So let me tell you what I think Nicole Wolverton has done exceptionally well here.  She’s absolutely captured Lela’s tortured mind, and done so in language that is somehow highly poetic at times, yet totally accessible. The other characters—Zory, Trina, Mrs. Gerhardt, Max, and even Nike the cat—are masterfully created.  One of the most difficult things to do as a writer is to give your readers a true sense of a character through the eyes of someone whose perceptions are so distorted.  That takes a great deal of skill, to craft so many layers so successfully.

She also does an excellent job of slowly ratcheting up the suspense.  The whole time I was reading, I kept hoping that Lela was going to snap out of all of this, but I knew she wasn’t going to because she couldn’t.  But I kept hoping anyway.  At its core, this book is a psychological thriller, and it’s a damned good one.

Most important, I think, is that she leaves the reader asking some pretty important questions—about the toll a national tragedy takes on people, and the bigger one of how on earth does someone get to this point without someone noticing and getting her some help?  There are clues here that Lela has been disturbed since she was a child, that her problems are possibly even inherited from her mother (although our only knowledge of Lela’s mother is through Lela herself, so that knowledge is untrustworthy) yet her father clearly shielded her.  Mrs. Gerhardt obviously suspects that Lela needs looking after, yet makes no effort to do anything other than talk to her when she seems agitated and suggest that she become more friendly with Trina.  Part of that might be because there’s nothing she can do—she is not Lela’s parent or next-of-kin or legal guardian.  Lela is an adult, and she needs help, but she’s obviously not going to see it that way, so she’s not going to take herself to get it and there is no one who can make her.  It’s a Catch-22, and it made me angry at her father for not facing up to his reality. And it really made me think about how stigmatized mental health issues are in America—that we’d rather hide and protect someone who we know has a problem than admit there’s one and get that person the assistance they need.

In a nutshell, keep your eye on Nicole Wolverton–she’s going places, I think–and get yourself a copy of this book.  It’s really, really hard to put down.

***********************

Ms. Wolverton very graciously consented to a brief email interview with me, in which she gave me her answer to how someone gets to Lela’s point without getting help—and she answered a few other questions as well:

Lela is a really fascinating character—so complicated, so layered, so insane.  Was it as much fun to write her character as I suspect it was?  Or was it difficult to put yourself inside her head? 

A little of both, really! At first it was really difficult to think like Lela. She’s so rational, but her reality is so removed from my own. What helped was the research I did into Lela’s particular mental disorder. Being able to work within very specific parameters of what she believes, why she believes it, and what her goals are helped a lot. And then it got really fun! I think most of us have a little bit of Lela in us–that part that smiles at a co-worker while secretly thinking that he’s a horrible person. But you’re not going to spaz out and attack your co-worker physically, right? With Lela, you just never know–she might–and that’s what made writing her a good time. And I just realized how completely psycho that makes me sound. I guess that’s the hazard of writing a book like The Trajectory of Dreams!

The narrative really plays with the idea of perceived reality: Lela is clearly disturbed to the reader, but her co-workers and other associates don’t see her this way at all—to them she appears competent, focused on her work at the sleep lab, intensely private and introverted.  Or so it appears to the reader.  But Max obviously suspects something, and Mrs. Gerhardt seems to hint that she knows Lela has issues. Yet neither of them is very proactive about getting her any kind of help.  Is their lack of action because they’re afraid, or because they know there’s really nothing the law will allow them to do?

As a reader, you never really know if anything is real or imagined because Lela is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. In my head, though, both Max and Mrs. Gerhardt do know something isn’t quite right but come to it quite differently. Mrs. Gerhardt is an incredibly perceptive person and thinks of herself as Lela’s protector of sorts (but also as someone who protects others from Lela). She’s known Lela since she was a kid and knew Lela’s father fairly well (and he may well have dropped hints to her over the years). She’s essentially a surrogate mother to Lela, especially since Mrs. Gerhardt never had kids of her own. Mrs. Gerhardt may strongly suspect there something going on with Lela, but there’s no proof precisely because Lela is so good at playing outwardly normal (well, normal-ish). Without proof, people are very reticent to do anything. It’s human nature to want to give people space, privacy. It’s exactly why you see those neighbors on the news who, after the guy next door has been exposed as a serial killer, say things like “I always knew there was something strange about him.”

With Max, it’s different because he’s lonely. He’s a man who hasn’t had a lot of success with women, and especially not anyone he puts on a pedestal, as he does Lela. Max basically ignores anything that might lead to the end of his relationship with Lela (and regular sex)…until he can’t anymore. By the time he’s willing to recognize it, it’s really too late to do anything about. His reasoning is less complicated than Mrs. Gerhardt’s but no less compelling for him.

Following up on that, Zory has a completely different outlook on what he describes as madness.  It seemed to me you were trying to make a point about how Americans view mental disorders and psychological problems as some sort of weakness to be hidden.  Can you elaborate on that?

Americans really do feel embarrassed by mental illness, as though we somehow have supernatural control over our health. Part of the American character is the idea that if you want it bad enough, you can be anything you want. When it comes to psychological problems, there’s almost an attitude that if you’re depressed, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough not to be depressed. Not working hard enough equates to laziness, and laziness is a sin and a weakness. We hide our weaknesses. So many insurance plans don’t include full mental health coverage because we’re taught to think we don’t need it. The whole attitude has really become a problem–people who need help either aren’t getting it or can’t get access to it. Maybe it’s not necessarily an American issue, but it certainly seems that way sometimes.

Lela’s obsession with the space shuttle program’s safety is partially the result of witnessing a traumatic shuttle explosion as a child.  The failed launch is obviously based on the Challenger explosion, but you’ve changed the name of the shuttle.  Was that out of respect for the astronauts lost on that mission and their families?

Absolutely. The last thing I want to do is capitalize on a tragedy. The shuttle program and the astronauts have played such an important part in our culture, and for those of us in a certain age bracket, seeing the Challenger explosion is something we’ll never forget. For Lela, seeing a shuttle explosion haunted her, and it’s easy to relate to that. Her memory of that moment is based on my memory. It was so strange to hear the shuttle program was being retired, and writing Trajectory was almost cathartic because of the research I did–seeing Dr. Guy Bluford, Jr. talk about being in the shuttle and on the International Space Station was fascinating.

 

My copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher for review and promotional purposes.

Homeland, Cory Doctorow

Homeland, Cory Doctorow

Homeland, Cory Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Homeland begins at Burning Man and ends there as well.  Everything that happens in between, however, should give every person who reads this book pause.

I’m not going to say I loved this book because I did not.  It had, in my opinion, a number of flaws as a narrative, and I’m going to get to those.  But despite my issues with it, I’m going to recommend it anyway.  Because Doctorow has something important to say in this book about how close we are to a dystopian society—everything that happens in Homeland happens because it can happen and is happening now.  All the technology exists, and the bad guys are out there.  You’ll see what I mean after the next few paragraphs.

The story itself is a sequel to 2010’s Little Brother in that it involves some of the same characters, specifically Marcus Yallow and his girlfriend Ange, as well as his nemesis, Masha, and the very evil Carrie Johnstone.  Marcus and his friends are all hackers, technogeeks, whatever you want to call them.  They can do things with computers that will stand your hair on end.  But they’re living in a society that is more and more oppressive: California’s economy has collapsed, Marcus’ parents are unemployed and barely hanging on to their house, he’s had to drop out of school because he can no longer afford the tuition and can’t find work, and his family is just one of most in the same boat.  If all of that sounds familiar, it should.  Hello 2008/2009.

Nevertheless, Marcus and Ange go to Burning Man, where they unexpectedly meet up with Masha, who is hoping to expose the corruption and illegality of the actions within the Department of Homeland Security.  She’s on the run and knows she can’t avoid her adversaries forever, so she gives Marcus a thumb drive with hundreds of thousands of incriminating files on it, telling him that if she should suddenly vanish, he needs to publish what’s on that drive.  Only hours later, Masha is snatched, and Marcus is left holding the bag—in this case, the information the snatchers want back from Masha.

What’s on the drive turns out to be flammable material indeed—proof that the government spies on ordinary citizens, that the student loan business is a racket designed to bleed people dry while enriching the lending companies and banks, that torture of American citizens is commonplace.  Meanwhile, Marcus is tipped off about a job working for an Independent political candidate as a webmaster, and having secured it, he now lives in fear of losing his job.  And he can’t publish Masha’s files because if they’re linked to him, it could not only cost him his job, but his candidate the election.  And people seem to be following him.  His computer is hacked and taken over, despite his precautions.  He’s living in a ball of sleepless fear as he tries to find a way to keep his job while exposing just how corrupt and morally bankrupt the political system has become.

Marcus’ story is compelling reading because if you aren’t actually in his situation, you probably know someone who is.  Or who is one serious illness away from bankruptcy.  Or one pink slip from financial devastation.  When you’re clinging to what’s left of your life with both hands as hard as you can, being forced into a position where you have to choose what is morally right and what is best for your own self-preservation is tough for anyone.  And that’s the position Marcus is in.  As a story, it is valid, but I have to wonder if these things would resonate with the teenage/young adult audience this book is aimed at; on the whole, I think people in that age bracket are politically aware, but I don’t know how much they think about these kinds of financial concerns. They’ll like all the hacker stuff, though, so maybe this will make them think about their family situations a bit more closely.  I think what’s troubling me about all of this is just WHY the publisher is promoting this as a YA book (it’s being released under the Tor Teen imprint).  Because the protagonists are older teenagers and young adults?

I could write an entire rant about books marketed as YA that really aren’t, and I might just get around to that later this week, but for now, let’s talk about what bugged me about that with this particular book: I think what Doctorow has to say here is important.  And not just for people under 25, but for anyone who genuinely cares about the future of society.  I wish I could say why I find it aggravating that a topic that the author clearly feels passionate about is being targeted to a more narrow audience.  I won’t presume that either he or his publisher thinks the rest of the reading world doesn’t care, or isn’t hip enough, or whatever.  But I do think that if you really do genuinely believe you have something valuable to say, you should want to say it to as wide an audience as possible.  I read a lot of YA books—but a lot of “grown ups” never get that far in a bookstore.  There’s an assumption here on someone’s part that has a kind of stinky odor to it that just bugs me.

Moving on before I really start ranting.  I did find there were some narrative issues here for me. For starters, while Doctorow does a very fine job of filling in Marcus’ backstory right from the start (I have not read the award-winning Little Brother) and painting his dystopian San Francisco, he also assumes that his readers know what Burning Man is (I had to look it up.  Apparently I’m not as cool as I think I am) and that they actually possess significant insights into how computers and smart phones work.  Now I will grant you that the average teenager is more tech savvy than I am, but there are paragraphs and paragraphs and paragraphs of tech exposition here that made my eyes cross and really did nothing to move the plot forward.  The first 100 pages are so larded with the stuff I nearly gave up, in fact.  But if you’re looking for an instruction manual on how to build a paranoid partition on your computer, look no further.  Of course, if you’re really interested, you could just Google it too.

It takes quite a while for Marcus’ story to really get going, between the lengthy descriptions of Burning Man and all the computer stuff; I personally think the first third of this book would have benefited from some judicious editing because it draaaaaags.  Which, not a good thing for a thriller, you know?  He  does a really good job of capturing teenaged Marcus’ voice, but most of the other characters are not nearly as vividly portrayed (the exception to this is Joe Noss, the California State Senate candidate Marcus becomes webmaster for—Noss’ charisma is palpable and believable) and Carrie Johnstone remains nothing more than a shadow figure despite her crimes, which are thoroughly detailed, being the impetus for nearly all of Marcus’ actions.  And while the point of this book is to demonstrate how powerless Marcus feels about his position and how the chaotic world he’s living in contributes to that feeling, there are times when Marcus’ philosophy of “when in trouble, when in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout” feels like it’s Doctorow’s narrative philosophy as well as he digresses into yet another discourse on technology or describes a pointless scene where Marcus discovers he’s playing Dungeons and Dragons with Wil Wheaton at Burning Man and has a major fanboy moment.  These little side trips are such a distraction, and the Wil Wheaton scene, in particular, smacks of name-dropping.  At other times though, such as the scenes when Marcus is attending various protests, that chaotic style is very effective.

I don’t mean this to sound as harsh as it does.  I think young adults and older teens will absolutely lap this stuff up, in fact, and love every bit of it.  Marcus has admirable, heroic, even romantic qualities that people in that age bracket especially will find appealing, but I think he might give all the older, less hip people hope for future generations as well.  Adults who have the time and mental energy to think about things beyond how to put their next meal on the table and how to pay the bills will certainly be interested in what Doctorow has to say about what our world is turning into.  And I think there are also a lot of adults who will see their own situations outlined in a very depressing manner.

Because the truth in the end is simple: this is one scary book.  And the reason it’s so scary is that you’ve seen evidence that all of this happens: kids coming out of college drowning in debt that they can’t hope to pay off in their lifetimes, lines of police pepper-spraying peaceful protesters who are simply sitting down, not acting violently, stories of school districts using government-provided laptop webcams to spy on students, politicians receiving obscene amounts of money from a single donor in order to promote the donor’s agenda while in office.  The Wikileaks scandal.  All of that stuff is real–Doctorow invented nothing really new in this book in terms of what happens, he’s just invented the time line and the characters it’s all happening to. The relentless reminder of all of this stuff as it plays out in the story is like water dripping slowly on your forehead, though.   By the time I was done with the book, I was completely paranoid.  So I suppose he can count that as a success because I’m pretty sure that was his intention.  Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to put a piece of duct tape over the web camera on my computer.

 

My copy of this book was graciously provided by the publisher for review and promotional purposes.