Don't write about accidents, a professor once warned my college creative writing class. The admonition confused me. Why wouldn't you write about an accident, with all its inherent drama? Once it happens, she explained, everything stops, resolution is difficult. I suspect she told us this to ward off having to grade a raft of sophomoric short stories from actual sophomores.
It's clear that Dani Shapiro never received this advice or didn't take it when writing her latest novel, "Signal Fires," and so much the better. It's Aug. 27, 1985, when the novel opens, and Sarah Wilf has let her inexperienced 15-year-old brother Theo drive. Theo's crush, Misty Zimmerman, is in the passenger seat, yawning, stretching, unbuckled. Dread builds. Things aren't going to end well, and they don't.
Choices beget actions until the inevitable happens: Three teens wrap a car around a tree and one of them doesn't survive. How the accident happens (vividly detailed and choreographed by Shapiro) and how it is handled (never to be spoken of again) will haunt the survivors, and those pulled into the accident's orbit, for the rest of the book.
As a memoirist and novelist, Shapiro is heavily invested in family secrets. She's plumbed the depths of her own family in not one but four memoirs. She hosts a podcast called "Family Secrets," so she knows a thing or two about what happens when families don't communicate. She is obviously interested in what people fail to say in "Signal Fires," but the novel explores so much more — big picture stuff, like time and how it's experienced.
The novel toggles from the day of the accident to 25 years later, then hopscotches to 1999 and the precipice of Y2K, to 2020 and the coronavirus, with brief stops in 2014 and 1970. Within that framework, point of view cycles among the Wilfs and the Shenkman family — patriarch Shenkman, his wife, Alice, and their son, Waldo — who live across Division Street, the road's very name expressing before and after.
Along that disjointed chronology, Shapiro drills down to the characters' notions of time. Sarah and Theo's father, Ben, believes "that we live life in loops rather than one straight line," emphasized in the book's structure, while Sarah "will come to think of lives as books divided into chapters," quite literally the novel itself, and Shenkman will decide — ironically, considering what kick-starts "Signal Fires" — that life "is just a series of accidents, one piled on top of the next like one of those huge highway crashes you sometimes read about."
Falling out of time is embodied in Sarah and Theo's mother, Mimi, who develops dementia. She also loses her sense of place, another of Shapiro's themes, as does Waldo, whose unfortunate name will have you thinking "Where's Waldo?" at certain points (one of Shapiro's few missteps). The author is adept, however, at juxtaposing the magical (not magical realism) and the modern, showing how locations can be the same and not the same, and that a place can be right for some and not for others but that life can still turn out all right.
Is all this too much to hang on a single accident? My creative writing teacher might have thought so, but I don't. Yes, Shapiro goes deep in "Signal Fires," but it pays off. Her crisp prose propels the reader onward: I wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters and I was simultaneously fascinated by the metaphysics. It's definitely a novel worth your time — whatever your sense of that is.
Maren Longbella is a Star Tribune copy editor.
By: Dani Shapiro.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 240 pages, $28.
Event: Talking Volumes, 7 p.m. Oct. 28, Fitzgerald Theater, St. Paul. Tickets $28-$30. https://www.mprevents.org/event/talking-volumes-with-dani-shapiro/