Three Wisconsin housemates weather a blackout.
"But Not for Long" is Michelle Wildgen's second novel, her first being a New York Times editors choice, and the fact that it is a novel puts unwelcome strain on what would otherwise be an extremely enjoyable character study.
It's too bad, because Wildgen has picked the perfect lab for her examination: a housing co-op in progressive Madison, Wis., during a power failure. The tensions between people -- sexual, political and merely individual -- simmer in such a situation, and Wildgen is great at catching the moments of connection and conflict between people. She is, at least in this book, a beautiful describer but not a storyteller. Her prose is full of lively, specific texture and apt cultural detail. Unfortunately, her characters do little more than have the occasional panic attack and experience the overused emotions of ambivalence and general unease.
The book takes place during a weekend-long blackout when the co-op is down to three residents.
The lone male, Hal, works at a food bank not just because he's kind, which he is, but because he loves math and dislikes "surplus." In Wildgen's hands he comes very much alive, the kind of well-meaning, slightly uneasy bachelor who still wears college sweatshirts although his ponytail is streaked with gray and whose gentleness goes along with an ineffable solitude.
Housemate Karin is an athletic, idealistic youngster who works as a reporter for Dairy News. She tries to salve her uneasy conscience by injecting puff pieces about small artisanal cheesemakers into what is basically an industry newsletter.
The fish out of water, Greta, a sleek, successful college administrator who wears leather so expensively soft that it's almost "naked and obscene," finds all the "rickety," "self-conscious funkiness" of her new neighborhood a little affected. Wildgen would have it that Greta is living there precisely because no one would expect her to, in order to avoid gossip about a crumbling marriage to her late-stage critically alcoholic husband. This idea doesn't really hold water, but Greta's a good foil for all the burning sage and honeycomb candles.
Unlike the characters, the small events that occur during the three-day timeline are never fully fleshed out. There's a pro forma feeling to the novel's small epiphanies -- as if someone told her "some story line is necessary, but nothing so flashy or vulgar as an actual ending." In the true, well-honed MFA non-narrative manner, questions are raised but not answered and "literature," like a gourmet, always leaves a little something on the plate. This is unfortunate, because Wildgen's characters are touching and believable, her place descriptions vivid. The reader wishes ardently for an actual story to develop because Wildgen's creations seem animate, deserving not just description, but resolution.
Emily Carter is the author of "Glory Goes and Gets Some."