Put five writers together, and it won’t take them ten minutes to come to a consensus about why contemporary literature is so underwhelming. But read the books they’ve written and you’ll likely find that they’re guilty of every literary offense they just listed. There are many reasons for this—capitalism is one (i.e., the necessity of a marketable product, though this doesn’t explain why so many affluent writers and writers who hold plum university jobs still turn out garbage). The conveyor belt of MFA programs is another, though to be fair a few quality books have been produced by MFA grads. Maybe most writers just don’t see convention as a text to write against, but one to add to. This approach, after all, passes ed board, pays the rent, and produces a few retweets. But when an authentically original book comes along, the shortsightedness of this approach becomes apparent.
Over for Rockwell, Uzodinma Okehi’s first novel, tells the story of erstwhile comic book artist Anelechuku “Blue” Okoye as he travels from Georgia to Hong Kong to Iowa City to New York City. There’s no exposition or narrative, to speak of; the book jumpcuts from late Aughties New York to Eighties Georgia to Iowa in the mid-Nineties. Characters appear and disappear, events are alluded to but rarely seen; the action, what there is of it, happens offstage. In fact, there’s very little conflict, and no drama or suspense, since a third of the way through the book it becomes apparent that our narrator (can you call him that if there’s no narrative?) isn’t ever going to achieve anything like closure, and isn’t really trying to. This all sounds like faint praise, but if you’re a perceptive reader, you realize that herein lies the book’s brilliance: life isn’t dramatic, we are rarely privy to the events that shape our lives, and no one ever really achieves closure, not really. You may seduce your cheating ex’s best friend or see your child’s murderer lethally injected or win a court settlement from the employer who fired you unjustly, but nothing ever really ends, and no satisfaction is anything more than a passing relief before you’re off again, looking for more of that feeling.
This kind of naturalism is exceedingly rare these days. Most of contemporary literature, even that which purports to come from the margins, more or less gives audiences what they want, little different from the summer blockbuster except with marriages exploding instead of robots, parental reconciliation acquired instead of briefcases of cash, political postures deconstructed instead of terrorist conspiracies. Characters learn lessons, discover that every person, no matter how boring, is interesting. Okehi is actively writing against these conventions. Things seem like they’re about to happen, but then don’t. His characters learn no lessons, win no victories, experience no real losses, either, since there’s rarely anything at stake more than the potential fulfillment of unarticulated and perhaps unarticulable hopes. Okoye, the protagonist, dodges cynicism and sentimentality alike. He does this by heroically—or stupidly, depending—making the same mistakes over and over and over again. Each time he stops just short of decocting out of these humiliations any kind of consolation. In a way, Okehi is Camus and Okoye is his Sisyphus, pushing his rock up the hill endlessly. “One must imagine him happy,” Camus says, even as he labors hopelessly. But then again, maybe not.
If sentimentality is the polar opposite of cynicism, it’s just as problematic, something else that Okehi seems to have intuited. A happy Sisyphus is just as ghastly as a despairing Sisyphus. Maybe worse. Okoye, the protagonist of “Over,” having perceived the essential absurdity of life, pushes his rock—draws his comics, pursues various women, etc.—while walking a metaphorical tightrope. Not hopeful, but not hopeless either. It’s not that his characters don’t perceive the injustices, the rigged game and indifference, the loneliness and futility. It’s that they simply refuse to extrapolate them into any kind of worldview. Cynicism is comforting because you’re essentially giving in to determinism. A spectrum of possibilities is compressed to a single presumption—and let’s be honest, cynics are right more often than they are wrong. Sentimental faux-humanism is the same note in a different key—we’re all one family, love heals all, every individual, no matter how banal, is special. It’s the literary equivalent of belief in an afterlife. This kind of existential shorthand is ultimately about efficiency, and there are few virtues more exalted in America today than efficiency. But the price is that you leave no space for possibility, for the unexpected, the novel. This is why the best parts of Over, and probably the heart of the book, are the chapters about Okoye’s childhood.
Okehi hones in on why we really idealize childhood—not because it’s better than adulthood, necessarily, but because it’s not anything. Okoye slingshots water balloons a half-mile into his gated community, with no idea where they land. There are incidents of petty-to-moderately-serious vandalism, brawls in construction yards, romantic and social humiliations. None of it means anything, because there are no consequences. But is Okehi presenting this as an alternative era of existence or as an alternative reading of existence? Maybe we aren’t expelled from this prelapsarian state as much as we leave it voluntarily. Maybe our actions are only consequential, our lives only dramatic, because we decide they are and proceed to frame them accordingly. Okoye the adult comports himself more or less the same way as Okoye the child, with similar results, or lack thereof. Which suggests what many of us have always suspected—that adulthood is a scam, a false narrative as disingenuous as the ones in the latest bestseller by you-know-who. See how it all comes together? Or maybe that’s a trap too, another minor insight that overextends itself towards universality, like a religion, or “show, don’t tell,” or a book review. Is Over for Rockwell a book about childhood vs. adulthood? Sentimentality vs. cynicism? Art vs. commerce? Is it about the inexpressibility of experience? The futility of travel? Is it a diatribe against contemporary literature, an antinarrative against narratives? It’s about all those things, possibly, and possibly none of them.
Over for Rockwell, by Uzodinma Okehi. Ann Arbor, Michigan: SF/LD Books, October 2015. 344 pages. $14.95, paper.
Franklin Schneider is the author of Canned: How I Lost Ten Jobs in Ten Years (Kensington, 2010) and various riprap for the web and television.