On the Outside Looking In: The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak
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by Jenna Leigh Evans
Readers with a beef about representations of race and class in literature would do well to exercise patience during the opening chapter of Karolina Waclawiak’s novel The Invaders. After all, the novel’s setting of Little Neck Cove, Connecticut — its old Congregational church, the town green at its center, its tasteful shops on Main Street — gives us no hint of the savage evisceration of white privilege that follows. “And along the water were hidden coves and snug blocks of beachside cottages,” concludes Cheryl, our protagonist. But just beyond the story’s gates lies a rank nest of cruelty, racism, addiction, and sexual perversion.
In the same way, it might appear initially as though Cheryl’s preoccupations — being frozen out of the cliques at the country club, wondering whether she should wear a certain shade of melon — are going to be standard-issue “White People Problems.” Ditto her stepson, Teddy, who resists his father’s desire for him to join the rat race by way of pills, pot, and hookups. So we’re all the more unprepared for the barbarism that follows after a Latino fisherman urinates between two parked cars in their beach town, setting off a frenzy of fear and loathing.
Within days, a border fence is erected on the seawall — built by migrant labor. “I watched the workers build the white picket fence blocking access to the ocean and knew that once they were finished they wouldn’t be allowed in, either,” Cheryl observes. “Everyone was on high alert […] the neighborhood had never felt more unsafe and we were all eyeing one another as potential threats.”
As fence and tensions alike rise, we learn that Cheryl wasn’t to the manor born; in fact she was desperately poor until she met her husband, Jeffrey, and nobody has any intention of letting her forget it. “I’m not new,” she chides a fellow denizen of Little Neck Cove. The reply: “Some people always feel a bit new, don’t you think?”
She copes with the inner turmoil this engenders by making anonymous obscene phone calls and, around seventy pages in, smashing somebody’s face to a pulp with a rock (spoiler alert: that’s not the darkest thing she does in this little parable). But she’s prone to go numb when it comes time for accountability, so she allows the grotesque incident to be blamed on what the town has come to call “the Mexicans.”
We might expect Cheryl’s dismay at the lawless hysteria she causes to shepherd her along a well-trodden narrative arc to redemption — but Waclawiak understands the corrupting influence of dissociation, so instead Cheryl drifts directly into the path of her stepson in a manner that marks him for life, cancels his career prospects, and makes him a permanent outsider in his community. Well, she never really fit in herself, anyway.
Her more emotionally-present husband, however, is so enraged that he pauses his kiddie porn long enough to kick her out of their house, unmoved that she has nowhere to go. After delivering this edict, he steps outside, drink in hand, to go for a stroll upon the seawall, the very picture of patriarchal wealth and belonging. Seconds later, he’s apprehended by a security guard for trespassing. When the police arrive, his response might be characterized as the town’s rallying cry, not to mention the central metaphor of the novel: “I’ll kill you if you come near me. I was here before you bastards were even born!” True to the trajectory of fascism (first they came for my neighbor, and so forth), the police take him away, for safety reasons, of course, as Cheryl watches on in silence. Meanwhile a hurricane is rolling in. And then the tale gets really dark.
by Karolina Waclawiak