The plot of Roundabout, the novel by Phong Nguyen, begins by asking “is this all there is?” I settled in for a lazy river ride of a read, but I immediately wished I’d brought a safety jacket. Because after a few pages the story turned into a white water rafting adventure. Roundabout is a novel without a narrative. It’s Nguyen’s treatise of creativity bound by constraints, but taking flight in spite of—or is it because of?—them. Nguyen builds a story by hacking away at everything I was taught to expect from a good read.
The opening few pages describe a comfortable and familiar premise. Ovid Dullann works at a mammoth multinational company. He lives with his wife, Anna and their teen-age twins Alyssa and Aaron. He was an artistic childhood prodigy who never lived up to his potential. Although he managed to publish one book, Marginalia, the second one rattling around inside of him remains unfinished. Nguyen places small unexplained details of their home life into the scene describing Ovid’s 49th birthday party. He’s surrounded by his loving, but vaguely disinterested, family as they gather for dinner. Instead of the expected birthday cake with candles, the family sings around a birthday tart. And, why does Ovid stop Aaron from leaving for the strip club, but not Alyssa? And why are underage teens going to a strip club? At first, I questioned these gaps in the narrative. But as I continued to read, I discovered these empty spaces aren’t holes left by a thinly stretched out plot. Nguyen uses these spaces to allow the narrative to expand.
While experimenting with gaps, an author runs the danger of the plot escaping from the story structure. Instead of coherent world building the reader is left with pages of chaos. Which can be interesting, but not if the reader is lost while diving into an abyss. The author usually acts as the guide, using the relationships of plot, character, setting, action, and resolution. Yet, Nguyen asks the reader to question this. Who made the author boss? What really happens when the story escapes the author? Does creativity need the author’s constraint, or does creativity survive in spite of the author? As I read Roundabout my foundation of solid storytelling shifted. I was led into an abyss, but I was never lost. With quiet precision Nguyen allows his readers to believe they are finding their own way through the pandemonium.
Nguyen accomplishes this is by telling the story through what isn’t, or shouldn’t be, there. He describes Ovid’s uneasiness within the framework of Ovid’s career, not through direct words or actions. Even though Ovid’s comfortable job at OuLiPoCorp allows him to support his family, he senses something is missing. He originally hoped the entry level position in accounting would lead to a career in one of the more creative departments. This never happened. The company defined him as an accountant, and he remained one. The name OuLiPoCorp mirrors the polarity of creativity and rules, and the real world philosophy of OULIPO, a study which “investigates the possibilities of verse written under a system of structural constraints” (Academy of American Poets). Ovid accepts the choices he made, but he discovers his continued existence depends on expanding the boundaries of his constraints. While I read words describing Ovid’s middle-aged dissatisfaction, something shifted. Not enough to lose me, but just enough to keep me thinking about the ideas opening up just beyond the words.
These Ideas become projectiles that fracture the plot into shards of philosophy, art, rhetoric, and metaphysics. Bright shimmers of literary canon and pop culture references are revealed in Ovid’s world. These references are a delight. At first they were welcome signposts, guiding me when I began to lose sight of where the novel was going. I smiled when I recognized the Abbott and Costello routine, but the scene opened up an unexpected space. Nguyen doesn’t use the familiar to invite the expected response. He moves these signposts and points them in a different direction.
Harold Bloom wrote in Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, that he (Bloom) isn’t concerned with “how this happened, but with why it continues.” This is how I felt as I fell into Roundabout. I spent almost as much time stopping to think/absorb/savor the book as I did physically reading. Normally, this happens near the end of a novel. Or in an exceptional case, once or twice as I read. There were times I stopped every ten pages or so just to stop, smile and think. Nguyen trusts the readers enough to throw the narrative away, but he keeps the story on track. Nguyen is an author who doesn’t lose control of his main character/idea/plot. He uses the constraints of literature and literary devices to set his story free. Is Roundabout a criticism of these literary constraints? Or does Nguyen honor them? Does creativity wither within boundaries? Or does it need to push against them to thrive? I’m not sure, but Nguyen still has me thinking about it. And he accomplishes all of this without the letter e.
Roundabout, by Phong Nguyen. Springfield, Missouri: Moon City Press, February 2020. 232 pages. $16.95, paper.
Noreen Hernandez is a teacher’s aide and writer with deep life long ties to Chicago. She is a fairly recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University English and Creative Writing Dept.