In Ravi Mangla’s Understudies the unnamed, first-person narrator, a high school teacher, helps his mother overcome her fear of flying, chills with a neighbor obsessed with a female movie star who’s moved into the neighborhood, and learns he’s about to be a father. He speaks in episodic vignettes about his job, his friends, his live-in girlfriend, his dreams, and his secrets—none of them particularly dark, though many perplexing, especially to him. Events in his life range from the absurd—he somehow begins playing in a band with some of his students, one whose given name is Cuisinart—to the mundane. In between are memories and encounters, as he drifts between grocery and hardware stores, watches television and shares the occasional bowl of herb. Events progress, kind of. School ends for the summer. Missy, his pregnant girlfriend leaves him and then returns. The celebrity that has made life in the neighborhood a little bit interesting relapses. The novel is loosely bracketed by this name-less celebrity, from her arrival in the opening chapters—are they chapters?—to her hospitalization from a drug overdose at the end. The town may be alert to her activities, and neighbor Chudley may be stalking her, but no one’s interest in her falls into a neat package. She’s as enigmatic as the baby books stacked up on the kitchen counter our hero can’t quite open for fear he will “summon the spirits of the unborn.”
So there she hovers, a faint presence; even in her drug-induced coma, not particularly traumatizing. But perhaps it’s not in the nature of Mangla’s narrator is be traumatized by anything. He’s an easy-going goofball, full of witty descriptions and snappy one-liners. In a scene where he goes to the drycleaners, Mangla’s eye for mordant, spot on description is given full play. The boy at the counter sports “less a bowl cut than a casserole dish cut, hair extending outward beyond his ears.” Naturally our hero has lost his ticket and can’t even remember his own clothes. So he strolls into the bowels of the shop, claiming he’ll recognize the order when he sees it. “The boy switched on the belt motor and the clothes rippled by on their hangers, a phantom parade. I assessed the rank and file, looking for something that might work for a Thursday.”
It’s just another moment in the life of Everyman, in the town of Every-ville, a universe where consequences are as weightless as those swinging, uninhabited shirts. Despite its segmentation, or maybe because of it, events in the novel aren’t cumulative. The disconnected vignettes seem like they could go on forever. Each episode, two hundred in all, covers a few paragraphs or, at most, a couple of pages. Some of them reminded me of Jack Handey’s “Deep Thoughts.” I wondered if this was just another collection of bro-mantic observations reminiscent of all those movies where not-quite-as-young-as-they-think men alternate between bravado and cowering, and often just go back home.
But something else tugs at the periphery of the form, and I think it turns Understudies into a little slice of genius. For, as it happens, these deadpan observations accumulate not temporally but morally. They define a world, and that is the world of suburbia. Urban and rural landscapes grip most of the contemporary fictional imagination, and at least since Cheever and Updike, suburban locales have been deeply site-specific. But Mangla’s town could be anywhere that contains a yard, a high school, a dry-cleaner and a hardware store. His locales are iconic, composed of places to run errands, take unsatisfying jobs, get buzzed and form relationships based on proximity and assumed values. The drifting form of this book is complicit and brilliant. Its closest relative is a television show, a narrative stream constantly interrupted by commercials, so the “story,” about which we anyway know the outcome, is reassuringly spooned into us in tiny, acceptable sips. The celebrity isn’t vacuous—that’s a quality more of her followers—but something from a larger world that barely touches suburban enclaves, except in photographs, rumors and death.
Understudies is more than perceptive; it works against clichés of the genre by not offering an indictment. For all his ironic posture, I’m not sure our narrator yearns to be anywhere else, even if his house runs air purifiers “until all the life was sucked from the rooms.” He lavishes on suburban life such apt, sharp and poetic description—by poetic I mean not pretty but piercingly exact—that it comes to seem the true love object in the novel. It’s an awfully brave stance. Because, scorned as empty and dull by urbanites, suburban life still represents American ideals of achievement and reward. The celebrity, ambassador of a larger world, can’t hack it there. Only Mangla’s hero has the skills to survive. Going out for Chinese food, he finds his fortune cookie empty, so Missy writes one for him: Everything will be beautiful. It’s the hoped-for promise of perfect happiness, inside the empty, impersonal shell, that is Mangla’s delicately revealed terrain.
Understudies, by Ravi Mangla. Outpost19. 141 pages. $14.00, paper.
Merridawn Duckler has published fiction and nonfiction widely, the most recently in Farallon Review. She has published poetry narrowly, the most recent in So It Goes, literary journal of the Kurt Vonnegut Library. Her scripts have been performed from Oregon to Valdez, Alaska. Her residencies stretch from Yaddo to Jerusalem.