Americans in their cars. Even in cities blessed with workable public transit, the car remains ubiquitous in the image of America. The highway sprawls, the careening suburban neighborhoods, the gridded urban avenues. And in our cars, we become singular, lone pod-people encapsulated and resolute in our isolation, only likely to make contact with others through personal grievance and terrible violence. Confined in motion. Much of Michael Collins’ The New Existence exists in transit. The characters are left to recollect—often alone, though sometimes with others—their lives in the meditative trance of the lonely American road. The car becomes, quite literally, the vehicle for exploration in the novel; a perfect metonymic device to excavate the desolation of contemporary (North American) reality.
The reality of the novel concerns the Price family, the Feldman family, the gory aftermath of the 2008 Financial Crisis, and the waning days of American empire. The book opens with Helen Price, the dying Matriarch, cruising through downtown Chicago, avoiding her destination—an oncologist appointment where she’ll almost certainly receive news of her impending death. Helen begrudges both her fate and the fate of the world, one which has seemingly moved on from the respectable, admirable qualities of the past, toward an unseemly present. Though, by her perception, the present was a result of a long series of historical atrocities that she wishes she might reverse (from the assassination of MLK to the impeachment of Nixon). At the center of Helen’s grief for the past is Theodore Feldman, her revered employer and paramour. A man who is as much a shadow of a time passed as a pure invention of American culture. A formerly successful Chicago businessman, besuited and sipping from a rocks glass. Mr. Feldman is long dead from an apparent suicide motivated by the financial crash of ’87. Booms and busts. For Helen, the crash is cultural as well as economic and, seeing no chance for recovery, Helen makes the same choice as Feldman, veering her car off the road and into Lake Michigan.
Nothing goes smoothly in The New Existence. Helen cannot die easily, nor can her husband—a down-and-out Chicago cop implicated in a gangland killing—allow the world to catch up with him. In America, we fantasize about the apocalypse because it means we’ll never have to answer for our actions. The past can never keep up with us if we obliterate the future, whether our own or everyone’s. In a deranged murder-suicide early in the novel, the elder Prices are dispatched, leaving only their estranged adult son, Norman, to survive them. The author of painfully autobiographical one-man shows—shows so personal they may have contributed to the familial alienation—Norman’s relationship with his partner is unraveling as well. Isolated and buoyed by his young adopted daughter, Grace, Norman is neither grief-stricken nor alert enough to face the onslaught of reality. His “New Existence” is a hodge-podge of compartmentalization and denial, walling off the rooms of his past. Norman is besieged by normalcy. Early in the novel, he reflects on the slow erosion of a distinctly queer and alternative identity to the tides of heteronormative values. Much in the same way that market collapses, destabilizations, and resulting corrections are accepted and expected with no thought to alternatives. The homogeneity of an economic system has resulted in a complementary homogeneous culture. It is the alternative, any alternative, that Norman laments.
Norman strikes up an unlikely friendship with his neighbor, Joanne. A down-and-out soul, her can-do attitude complements Norman’s bohemian cynicism, and Joanne moves in after losing her apartment, job, and boyfriend. As resident nanny to Grace and confidante to Norman, Joanne convinces Norman to take a trip to his parents’ residence, the home he has inherited but never returned to. What would become a quintessential drama of a reunion too late becomes something else entirely. The New Existence denies expectation, painting the façade of a social realist novel and changing trajectory every few pages. Collins’ prose contracts and expands to suit the shifting structure of the novel. His language flexes with sinewy muscle, punching through the fog of the 21st century with a keen sense of project and process, working to untangle the post-Fukuyama, End of History that refuses to die. Things can only continue to end, and as Norman finds himself cornered by his own disquieted psyche, he’s posed to ask, “What the fuck will we do with the rest of our lives?”
One option could be a real reckoning with the severed tendrils of the past. As Norman and Joanne make their journey to the familial home, Theodore Feldman’s son, Nate, makes a parallel journey from rural Canada, where he has lived for decades after escaping the Vietnam draft. Nate has been called to America to retrieve a set of Super 8 reels willed to him by Helen Price—antiquated technology containing an even more antiquated past. Collins posits this narrative as another hanging branch of connection, though the limb is weak and atrophied, and Nate’s connection to anything outside his immediate purview is barely tangible. The business and family that sustained Nate’s life have all blown away, leaving only the residue of history to examine.
Collins’ conclusions aren’t entirely fatal. He cribs a quote from Camus to open the final section of the novel, so we might intuit the potential of happiness, or at the very least, acceptance. Collins wisely points out the privilege of resolute cynicism. The denial of hope acts as another buffer against a world beyond the self. And despite the material reality of collapse, the past is inextricable from nostalgia. What we might wish to remember is always at least a partial fantasy. Whether destroyed by Ponzi schemes, resentment, terminal illness, or some combination of the three, the characters in The New Existence can’t abdicate their positions in the world. None of us can, nor should we want to. There’s still a world here, even if it doesn’t resemble the one we’ve known.
The New Existence, by Michael Collins. Iowa City, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, October 2021. 146 pages. $16.00, paper.
Vincent James Perrone is the author of the poetry collection Starving Romantic (11:11 Press, 2018), the microchap Travelogue For The Dispossessed (Ghost City Press, 2021), and a contributor to the novel Collected Voices in the Expanded Field (11:11 Press, 2020). His recent work can be found in Storm Cellar, The Indianapolis Review, and Olney Magazine. He is the poetry editor of The Woodward Review and lives in Detroit. Say hi at vincentjamesperrone.com.