FICTION: The narrator contemplates suicide, leaving behind a manuscript that becomes a bestseller.
In 2009 Ron Currie Jr. published “Everything Matters!,” an appealingly antic novel that proffered a kind of kitchen-sink philosophy about fiction. Currie crammed his book with riffs on baseball, politics, the end of the world and the nature of God, but it thrived on a bittersweet, ultimately hopeful story about a father and son. Imagine George Saunders in an expansive mood or, were it possible, Cormac McCarthy in a comic one.
Currie’s follow-up, “Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles,” is a moodier, at times bitter work, though his urge to experiment remains undiminished. Constructed out of very brief chapters — some no longer than a paragraph, most about as long as this review — the novel purports to be the memoir of one Ron Currie Jr. who tried to kill himself on a Caribbean island after an extended romance went sour. This Currie fears that technology will ruin us, can’t stop mourning his late father, and, though he’s started a novel, he “couldn’t find either the motivation or the acumen to finish a grocery list.” Hence a drive into the sea: Nothing matters!
The parade of paragraph-long chapters gives “Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles” a herky-jerky rhythm — at times the novel feels like a car that won’t start. But that’s partly intentional: Currie is busting up narrative to explore the blurry line between fiction and memoir. Though the suicide attempt fails, Currie is believed to be dead, and while he hides out in the Sinai Peninsula, the heartbroken novel manuscript he left behind becomes an international bestseller. Millions bought it because they were enchanted by a dead writer’s final romantic plea. But if the writer turns out to be alive, did the author hoodwink you, or did you hoodwink yourself?
“There is a brand of lying that feels more honest than the actual facts of an event,” the fictional Currie says when he’s literally put on the stand to explain his non-death, and the novel itself ultimately becomes an attempt to defend the novel. Regardless of how much of the real Currie’s life is in the book, he means to test how much we allow a story to affect us when a story is “true” instead of “fake.”
With practically every memoir today under suspicion, the idea has urgency. Still, Currie — real or fake, take your pick — can at times feel off-puttingly blackhearted about our collective fate: He’s prone to message-board philosophizing like “we will lose our gods irretrievably, and … we will do so by becoming them ourselves.” Currie’s emotional depth, especially concerning the death of his father, keeps this from being a wholly despairing book. But there’s a fearful, unanswered question stressed in it all the same: How useful is storytelling as a weapon against that despair?
Mark Athitakis is a reviewer based in Washington, D.C. He blogs at markathitakis.com.