by Morgan on March 2, 2011
Have you ever been to Newport Beach? Even if you haven’t, you know what to expect, right? Starting with the popularity of The OC, followed by our continuing obsession with its affluent housewives, we’ve become thoroughly schooled in the clichés of this seemingly vacuous, wealth-and-beauty obsessed slice of heaven on the coast of Southern California.
Those clichés are on full parade in Victoria Patterson’s This Vacant Paradise, but there’s a lot more to this novel than the thinly veiled white-guilt social commentary I was expecting from the title.
The novel centers around a clutch of attractive people who “belong to the segment of the upper class in Newport Beach that settled into what was expected: a pipeline from USC and back again, never straying far from their hometown. Wealth maintaining wealth, at all costs.” A society in which money trumps all, and everything – jobs, cars, houses, spouses, clubs, religion- is “in service of the continuum.”
The women are beautiful and fake. The men are rich and love to golf. You know the drill. Enter Esther – early thirties, beautiful, unmarried but hoping to change that. Esther is broke, living with (and off of) her wretched and ill-spirited grandmother, and stealing from the cash register of the high-end clothing shop where she works. She’s light years behind where she should be on the continuum.
Still, she sees herself as “superior to the women clutching multiple shopping bags, who struck her as comparatively stupid. She was prettier, smarter. They didn’t appreciate the beauty of the world they inhabited, and the items they purchased she deserved for free.” (Most of Patterson’s characters show this kind of blunt-force entitlement. That’s because they inhabit a world where entitlement is a survival skill. If you don’t reach out and grab everything you want, someone else will, and you wont be invited to their party.)
Esther should marry Paul Rice. He’s rich and powerful. But she’s in love with someone else. Someone who breaks the mold. Bored yet? I was too. While I appreciated the social voyeurism and the spot-on dialogue, not to mention Patterson’s truly masterful, hilarious, and disgusting rendering of Esther’s grandmother – “Grandma Eileen’s tongue popped out, made a brief, grotesque appearance, and went back inside its cave.” – I have to admit that for the first 75 pages, I had no idea what this book was about.
Then we meet Eric, Esther’s homeless, drug addict brother, to whom she’s spiritually enslaved, and suddenly, This Vacant Paradise becomes a story about what happens when people expose their true selves to one another.
Esther is bound to her brother because, from a very young age, and before she understood anything else about the world, she understood him. “When she looked in his dark eyes, she saw a glimmer of his uncertainty and his fear, his vulnerability and sensitivity, and she understood how incredibly fragile he was; she believed that if she ever let on that she knew, even for a moment, or asked him the wrong question, he might quickly unravel.”
Because she feels she knows him like no one else, she feels responsible for him, connected to him in some vital, transcendent way. When Eric runs into an open oven door and has to get stitches, Esther remembers: “when she’d heard him screaming behind the curtain, she had felt like she was screaming, as if they were really and truly one person; she’d pressed her palms against her eyes, her stomach tightening, imagining the nurses holding his legs and her father holding his arms. A chanting in her head: Please, please, please let him (me) be okay. Let my brother (me) be okay.”
And so it is with all the characters in the novel: they float around, hiding from each other and themselves, abstracted by wealth, family, gossip, tradition, appearance, power, security, gender and class stereotypes. In short: the continuum. Because to show oneself to another would equal destruction for both people.
Indeed, they can’t even bear to be vulnerable when they’re alone. When Charlie, the object of Esther’s unwitting affection, finally allows himself to experience his own pain, he accosts himself. “He’d promised never to willingly humiliate himself again. And yet here he was, cowering in his bed.”
So delicate is the facade Patterson’s characters have created, so tenuous, that a slip of any kind, a single hint of sincere, egoless expression, and the whole thing comes crashing down. And sure, they feel more alive when they expose themselves, when they take chances, but there’s, “No sense of security, feeling this alive. None.”
So what then? Well…God. Patterson’s characters typically fall back on the one person they feel isn’t judging them, the one person to whom they can expose themselves without having to handle the social repercussions.
It’s refreshing to be reminded, in a work of fiction, of the human tendency toward faux religiosity in times of despair, without getting beat over the head with satire or commentary from the writer. Patterson exercises great restraint. “She got down on her knees, eyes closed, hands holding on to the rim of her sofa. ‘Oh my God,’ was all she could come up with. ‘Oh my God, oh my God.’ She was out of practice, years since she’d tried earnestly to communicate with God, but she hoped her confusion was an authentic prayer.”
That’s the word I’m looking for: authenticity. The characters in this novel have constructed a society in which they cannot be authentic, lest they be excommunicated.
I don’t want to linger on all this God talk, though. It’s so serious. While This Vacant Paradise is indeed a scary, close-up, pores-out look at what happens when people can’t help but expose themselves, it’s also funny, and simply a pleasure to read.
I leave you with my favorite passage: Charlie, describing Nora, his bleeding-heart best friend: “She didn’t shave her armpits. She’d yawn, lifting her arms, and he’d see the silky mouse-brown hairs twisted around each other – dewy – peeking through her sleeve holes. He had supposed that this European convention would be erotic in a base, woman-is-from-the-earth kind of manner, but he found it almost pornographic in the wrong way, like accidentally seeing an old woman’s vagina, or his sister’s vagina, or his mother’s vagina – not that that had ever happened, thank God.”
Oh shit, there’s God again. Oh well.
This Vacant Paradise came out today, from Counterpoint Press. I think you’ll like it.