Ever have one of those days? Ever have one of those lives? Karl Temperley has. He and his wife, Genevieve, are the sort of bright young couple (double income, no kids) who really should be doing quite well, by any other measure than the one that counts — reality, by whose hard reckoning, Karl = screw-up. Smart as all get-out, chock-full of cultural, if not practical, knowledge, he writes “consumer reviews for products he’s never used and bespoke school and undergraduate essays as ‘study aids’ for ten pence a word.”
Because the income from this questionable piecework, even augmented with Genevieve’s salary as a teacher, has not covered the couple’s meager lifestyle, Karl has created his own little credit card Ponzi scheme, paying off one card with another, and so on, until, in desperation, he takes on an even more questionable job — and ends up where we find him at the novel’s onset: “facing fifteen months in jail for fraud and a tax infraction he still couldn’t quite fathom.”
And this is where The Transition comes in. As an alternative to jail, Karl signs up to participate in a program that bills itself as “a holistic approach to getting our lives back on track.” Karl and Genevieve are given lodging with another couple, their “mentors” Stu and Janna, who offer guidance and instruction on everything from relationships to financial planning to nutrition, with compulsory journaling, investment games and counseling sessions.
What could go wrong?
Balanced uneasily between social satire and dystopian sci-fi, the novel follows Karl’s point of view, with The Transition going progressively from promising and mysterious to menacing, its program of social engineering seeming more and more like a process of winnowing society’s losers (i.e., those, like Karl, who need an out) from their innocent, productive partners — who then, in the manner of bureaucratic self-perpetuation, become employees and promoters of … The Transition.
The novel, like The Transition, is somewhat better at moving people toward a goal than knowing what to do with them once they get there. But this, oddly, is one of the book’s charms; Karl is such a fine specimen of a certain character, a sort of hapless but serious — and seriously funny — good guy in the Hugh Grant vein, that his navigating of all the paranoid, conspiratorial material that comes his way is fun to follow even when it goes nowhere.
As a representative of his generation — “forced, kicking and screaming, to follow your dreams,” as Stu puts it — Karl is a perfect exemplar of 21st-century, middle-class anxieties that are at once the result and the handicap of “progress.” That his plight is so engaging is a key to his, and his cohort’s, staying power, and a testament to the author’s art.
Ellen Akins is a writer and teacher of writing in Cornucopia, Wis.; ellenakins.com.
By: Luke Kennard.
Publisher: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 328 pages, $27.