Thursday, October 24, 2013

Throwback Thursday - Falling Under

At first glance, Falling Under—the debut novel of Canadian stage actress and playwright Danielle Younge-Ullman—appears to be a rather simple tale, recounting the interpersonal struggles of a troubled young woman attempting to recover from a challenging past. However, just beneath the veneer of the title’s basic description lies a multifaceted story every bit as nuanced as human nature itself. 

At its core, the novel does hold firmly to the path laid out by its premise. As the story begins, Mara Foster is a child on Christmas morning. Far from joyous, the occasion leaves the five year old shrinking as her parents bicker heatedly over the affordability of her presents. It’s soon established that her life is fraught with the fiercely invective quarreling between her hapless, alcoholic father and unabashedly venomous mother. The toll such fighting, and her father’s eventual departure, take on the young girl is unavoidably heartbreaking. The innocent self-recriminations all too familiar under these circumstances assail the girl, setting the stage for both the troubled life of the protagonist, redolent with self-loathing and insecurity, and the novel through which that life is viewed. 

The majority of the book is told through minimalist first-person narrative, reminiscent in some ways of Palahniuk’s style. The author’s vocabulary is rich in emotional import, delivered in fragmented thoughts and conversational observations. The first chapter, however, like all other passages which chronicle Mara’s history, is told instead in the mode of second-person narrative. While the difference may seem unusual, the affect proves to be most profound. By so relating the events which shaped and conditioned Mara’s character as she exists in the novel’s present, the author crafts a bridge of empathy between Mara and the reader. Mara’s life, past and present, is rife with tragic circumstances and questionable choices; and yet, regardless of what one may think of these events, the empathy imbued by the second-person portions of the story enables judgment and understanding to remain separated. Readers may not agree with Mara’s decisions, but they’re much more likely to at least understand how such decisions were made.

Irrespective of these narrative shifts, the story as a whole does a fair job of speaking directly to the heart of the reader. Anyone who has known the anxieties of a burgeoning relationship, or suffered the agonies of love’s sudden absence, will easily find a piece of themselves in Mara’s story. Despite a level of social anxiety that borders on agoraphobia, Mara’s is not a world lacking in people. There are the tenuous relationships she maintains with her parents; her friendship with a rather boisterous and independent lesbian named Bernadette; sometimes-lover Erik, with whom she has a relationship few would characterize as anything but desperate; and Hugo, a new romantic prospect whose appearance in her life, and insistence to remain there, shakes her already fragile existence to its core. A host of former lovers flood her memory, particular that of Lucus, whose loss has come to define Mara in every way. 

Even elements of Mara’s character which are perhaps not familiar to the average reader somehow manage to cross the author’s bridge of understanding. Mara’s lifestyle is that of the artistic shut-in, producing relatively bland paintings for Sal, yet another former lover turned agent and patron. One need not know intimately the subject to experience vicariously what it is for Mara to practice her art. In fact, though the author spares readers any excessive reference to the more technical aspects of painting, her description of the emotional and existential abstractions of the artist’s life convey far more than she might have done by describing practical details.

This aspect of the story—that Mara is made so identifiable—grates at times, much as witnessing a struggling friend may similarly frustrate. For example, as the story progresses there are numerous instances in which Mara is confronted by individuals angered by apparent misunderstandings. With their faces red and voices raised, Mara is paralyzed, so akin to the trauma of her childhood are these experiences. Where a simple explanation or word in her own defense might thwart further discomfort, Mara instead remains frozen, silent, leaving the angry other to their assumptions. Like a moviegoer warning onscreen characters in futility, so too may readers find themselves urging Mara to rouse from her panic-stricken silence, her periods of depression-induced malaise. The overall affect is nothing short of striking. As they come across these and other such examples, many readers will find themselves quite drawn in by the undeniable human quality inherent to the story.

Falling Under is not a novel without faults, though they are indeed few, foremost of which is the disproportionate attention paid to Mara’s livelihood in comparison to those of others. Most characters, if not similarly employed in the arts, find their lives receive little more than lip service. The most glaring example is that of Erik, described very early on as a computer hacker, involved enough in such activities to warrant an apartment littered with technological paraphernalia. After a few references to this effect, no further mention is made of his illicit behavior. In light of the thorough exploration of his relationship with Mara, however, it is perhaps forgivable, as the depth of emotion involved is clearly more deserving of the reader’s attention. 

While the novel explores themes such as struggle and redemption, Falling Under is ultimately a story about consequences. Whether these are caused by elements beyond Mara’s control, such as the fallout of her parents’ failed relationship, or the results of her own poor choices, the message most prominently displayed is that life is a matter of managing and navigating the consequences that punctuate our lives. As the story draws to its close readers may well find themselves feeling as if they have experienced a number of the consequences with which Mara herself has had to contend. Whether this feeling derives from having lived through similar hardships and triumphs, or from the vicarious experience of having read Danielle Younge-Ullman’s brilliantly insightful work, this much is clear: anyone with a taste for edgy, heart-rending fiction will find more than simple entertainment here.

Click here to read the Post Script to this review

This review previously appeared elsewhere in November 2012

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