I’ll get right to the point: Jesse Browner’s Everything Happens Today has been, hands down, the absolute highlight of the month of March for me. Not that March of 2013 has been that great of a month for me: I didn’t win any major literary prizes or suddenly solve any of my medical problems, but I did eat some good sushi, and I did finally find a decent massage therapist west of the Mississippi, and nothing terrible has happened to my car in March, at least not yet. All of these things are good, but trust me – Everything Happens Today is better.
This novel’s protagonist is the thoroughly engaging seventeen year-old Wes – a high-achieving high school junior and aspiring novelist – and its action takes place over the course of a single Saturday. It begins when Wes walks sleeplessly home from a party through early-morning Manhattan streets, briefly encounters his father in the kitchen, slides silently past his invalid mother’s bedroom to avoid alerting her to his presence, takes a shower and sleeps for a few hours before waking up to face both the challenges of the day ahead and the consequences of the events of the previous day and night – events and challenges that are both monumental and ordinary and that are consistently very, very compelling. This novel is wonderfully written, and Wes is a fantastic protagonist; this is the finest contemporary novel that I’ve read in a long time.
Hours before the novel begins, Wes lost his virginity to the infamous sophomore vixen Lucy, in spite of the fact that the composed and dignified Delia, who is also Wes’ mentor in his forays into Buddhism, was present at the same party and has long been the love of Wes’ life. The details of how Wes meandered into his sexual intimacy with Lucy are revealed in pieces throughout the novel and involve the machinations of Wes’ friend James, an exchange of flirtatious text messages, and a series of framed pictures of Lucy’s family that Wes finds intriguing. On Saturday morning, he is consumed with guilt and dread as he imagines his next conversation with Delia, and he is also upset in a more existential way: this was his one change to lose his virginity, and he botched it. Wes is the type of person who worries about this sort of thing: he is an advanced literature student, and he has already started to do what most English majors eventually can’t stop themselves from doing: he sees his life as a series of literary tropes – metaphors and epiphanies, moments of foreshadowing and dramatic irony, characterization and symbolism and exposition and denouement, and he sees his previous night as a moment when his character was not so much revealed as destroyed.
In addition, Wes has an assignment looming over him as the weekend begins. Earlier that week, he had been assigned to choose any work of literature and write about the way the author “emphasize[s] [his] social and psychological themes as much through the use of language and narrative trope as they do through plot and characterization” (19). Never mind that this is exactly the kind of assignment that no high school English teacher would ever give in the 21st century since it positively begs to be purloined off the internet, but never mind that. Wes did not plagiarize his essay; what he did instead was write it not about a novel or short story or play but about the U.S. Army’s M16 Operator’s Manual – a document that he had found recently during an unrelated internet search. “You thought I’d be so dazzled by your iconoclasm and wit that I wouldn’t notice that you’d barely gotten out of bed to write this” (19), his teacher says, confirming what Wes has already admitted to himself: “he also knew something about himself that his facility [as a writer] generally concealed from all but the most astute teacher – that he was a lazy and undisciplined thinker who too often relied on the shining surface of words to mask his disdain for academic pieties” (17). On Friday morning his teacher told him that he would have to rewrite the essay; by his own choice (probably perversely, as a way of thumbing his nose at his teacher in a somewhat less unacceptable way) he is planning to write about War and Peace, and he spends portions of Saturday flipping through Tolstoy’s novel (which he has read), considering its characters and themes (but not particularly considering its language, says the former English teacher reading the novel – but I’ll leave that to his teacher Mrs. Fielding to deal with), and engaging in various forms of essay-writing foreplay that I’m sure all of my readers remember from their student days.
The fact that Wes is contemplating War and Peace is only one way that this novel is very self-conscious in its allusions to other works of literature. Sometimes this kind of intertextuality can be a bad thing, but in this novel I think it works beautifully. For example, Wes’ relationship with his twelve year-old sister Nora is highly reminiscent of Holden Caulfield’s relationship with his sister Phoebe. Wes never thinks consciously of Holden and Phoebe – as far as I can remember, there are no references to The Catcher in the Rye on the page at all – but it’s hard for the reader to avoid making this connection when Browner gives us passages like this: “Wes couldn’t help himself. Every time he saw his sister he was filled with love for her. She was the most delightful, easy, dependable, kind, and intelligent child on the planet, and all he wanted to do was protect her from all this, have him call her ‘daddy-o’ forever and make sure that she didn’t grow up too fast or around the wrong sort of people. But then Wes remembered that he himself had become the wrong sort of person, precisely the kind of person that little sisters need protecting from, and maybe she needed protecting from him too” (10). Even the pace of the novel’s sometimes-frenetic syntax slows down here when Wes thinks about his sister, and he even sort of thinks about her in clichés, something he would be loath to do about any other topic. One of the saddest parts of the novel is the way that Wes does consistently let Nora down – he takes his mother’s side when she wrongly accuses Nora of forgetting to give her breakfast, and then he first takes Nora to a movie that he later realizes is inappropriate for her and then leaves the theatre to answer a text message only to become distracted and abandon Nora altogether – in spite of the fact that he has nothing but loving intentions toward her.
In addition to his own failures, Wes is also determined to protect Nora from the pain and corruption of their nuclear family, in which his mother wastes away in the late stages of M.S. in an upstairs bedroom while his father (a “failed novelist,” in Wes’ words) sleeps with his students in the separate in-law apartment in the basement. The scenes in which Wes visits his mother in his room, patiently helping her to the bathroom and watching the same episode of an insipid painting show over and over, are a wonderful counterpoint to the harder-edged Wes who contemplates sex and shame and failure and War and Peace and are a reminder of just how complicated this protagonist is. He even eventually introduces Lucy (his partner from the previous evening) to his mother – long story how that relationship evolves over the course of this eventful Saturday.
Any time a novel takes place over the course of a single day, I can’t help wondering if the author wants to draw parallels to Ulysses, and with all the allusions dancing all over the place in this novel, I was even more than usually on the alert for references to this novel. Certainly Wes is an “artist as a young man” in the manner of Stephen Dedalus; he is just as determined and stubborn and intense and confused as Stephen, and he is as hard on himself for his perceived failures as Joyce’s protagonist is. The tension between Wes and his father (and Wes’ clear contempt for his father, who for all his other failures is kind to Wes) resembles Stephen’s as well. But it wasn’t until Wes begins preparing sweetbreads for his mother’s dinner that I really began to sit up and pay attention. Here’s how it happens: Wes’ mother usually eats nothing but prepared cartons of rice pudding, but on this particular Saturday she is having one of her more lucid days, and she asks Wes for sweetbreads, confessing that she ordered them at a restaurant in Paris during her honeymoon, not knowing what they were, and she was horrified by them when they appeared and threw them away in her napkin when her husband went to the bathroom. She tells Wes that she wants to finally eat sweetbreads after failing to do so all those years ago, and Wes sees this as her way of trying to repair the rift in her marriage with Wes’ father. Wes dutifully goes to the butcher, buys a sweetbread (he doesn’t know what they are either, at first, and is horrified), and follows the complicated recipe for its preparation, a process that takes all day. By the time the sweetbread is ready, Wes’ mother has forgotten that she requested it and eats her rice pudding as usual, and Wes’ father and sister refuse to touch their portions. All of this works quite well in the novel and contributes to its pathos, but let’s face it: a novelist doesn’t just toss a sweetbread into a novel (especially a novel that takes place over the course of a single day) unless he is trying to suggest a parallel to Leopold Bloom, who famously cooks and eats kidneys in chapter four of Ulysses. I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything absolute about this parallel, and Everything Happens Today is a terrific novel in its own right even without the allusions, but there is something about the wandering quality of this novel – the way Wes is constantly acting with decision and purpose and yet never quite accomplishing what he sets out to do, as well as the centrality of New York as the novel’s stage (as a parallel to Dublin, of course, although the New York setting also suggests The Catcher in the Rye) and also the novel’s great sadness, the world-weariness that Wes feels in spite of (or even because of) his youth, the recognition that so many human endeavors are destined for failure – that feels like an intentional allusion to Joyce’s novel. Even Wes’ mother, languishing in bed, can be seen as a very ironic Molly Bloom: ill rather than sexual, a mother to the protagonist rather than a lover, but equally trapped in the prison of her own mind and equally a locus of confusion, hostility, and deep love for Wes as Molly is for Leopold.
As I’ve said already, this kind of heavy allusiveness could be a liability in a contemporary novel (and, for all its self-conscious placement of itself in the canon, this novel is also self-consciously contemporary, with tweets and Facebook posts and text messages and Google searches all very much part of its plot and texture), but in this case it isn’t. This is a novel about the way literature shapes us, so of course it is only right that we should see how literature has shaped this novel. Literature doesn’t shape everyone, of course, but it does tend to shape those of us who let it. The subject matter of this novel is not too different from the subject matter of this blog, come to think if it – it is about the way people who read (even people who read imperfectly and impatiently, like Wes and like me) sort of become books themselves, and after a while we begin to see our lives as equal parts War and Peace and The Great Gatsby, equal parts The Catcher in the Rye and Ulysses, equal parts Hamlet and The Odyssey, equal parts The Portrait of a Lady and the Outlander series.
I highly recommend this novel. Please, please read it. I haven’t felt this evangelical about a novel since We the Animals. I definitely haven’t delved into everything I wanted to say about it, but I want to know that other people are reading this book and thinking about it, and I want to talk about it soon with others who have read it.
Oh, and P.S. When I reviewed Wichita last summer, I spent a good bit of time on how poorly proofread it was. This novel is another Europa edition, and it is poorly proofread too. Its legion of word choice confusions (‘staunch’ and ‘stanch,’ for example), apostrophe errors, and other glitches is tremendously distracting and is an insult to the dignity of this novel. Europa Editions needs a new copy editor, STAT, and should be ashamed of itself.