Review: A Thousand Pardons, by Jonathan Dee
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
A novel confronting the politics of apology, and the obstacles to redemption
On the surface, the plot of A Thousand Pardons is not unfamiliar: the breadwinning husband of a well-to-do household, mired in ennui, bursts into a fit of destructive, albeit temporary, insanity that lays waste to his home life. Drastic upheaval; everyone changes. Like its predecessor, The Privileges, Dee’s latest novel is about the disintegration and tenuous re-construction of a family, bristling with keen observations, sharply realistic dialogue, and propulsive sentences in which even mundane events are freighted with tension.
When a novel that plumbs the domestic sphere as a way to address larger societal issues is written by a woman, we call it a kitchen-sink drama; when it’s written by a man, we nominate it for the Pulitzer. But never mind; that’s not Dee’s fault — and anyhow, the book’s domestic minuet (and its subplot about a movie star who may, or may not, have done something unspeakable) is only a delivery system for a scathing indictment of the lack of personal responsibility that Dee sees as currently rotting every timber of Western life.
The point is not made subtly: our heroine, Helen Armstead, lands a job at a PR firm and quickly becomes sought after for her ability to get hardnosed CEOs, from Pepsi to the Catholic Church, to apologize for their wrongdoing — which they only do to evade bad press. But an astute reader will find that every detail builds further evidence in Dee’s case: a supposed good Samaritan is squeamish about touching a man that lays unconscious and bleeding. The head of a firm hides in his office posting comments on music blogs all day. An officious floor manager furiously demands that someone immediately clear an exit point she is blocking with her own body.
In Dee’s hands, selfishness assumes complex shapes. Helen’s child Sara, whom she is struggling to nurture while buckling under the pressure of her own responsibilities, has been deliberately and elaborately lying to her mother. Yet Sara tells Helen, spitefully: “I do not feel safe with a totally checked-out mother who has no interest at all in her daughter’s life.” Self-righteousness among teenagers isn’t new, but Sara is using the lingua franca of the modern American: I’m responsible only to myself; it’s someone else’s job to protect me from unpleasant feelings.
In another scene, Sara’s boyfriend Cutter, who is black, delivers a leaden lecture about racism. Just as Sara starts to feel that he’s being rather a drag, he accosts a pair of white kids, who hand over their iPods and cash without realizing he’s not mugging them. Like Sara, we’re shocked and chastened. But Cutter keeps the iPod, he keeps the cash. No one gets off scot-free here.
Truly facing up to responsibility leads one to dark places. The movie star simply can’t remember his crime (or was there a crime?). Helen’s husband Ben can only face himself by the most self-punishing means — he doesn’t perceive that there might be any other way. Only Helen, believer in apologies, reflexively takes on the burden for everyone.
In fact, her character seems like a heroine out of another era, extending a gloved hand and saying how do you do? with perfect elocution. These charm-school manners go unexplained, and at times feel downright archaic. It’s almost as if Dee can’t conceive of a modern woman so unfailingly polite, generous and resourceful; and initially her earnestness brings her perilously close to being a caricature. But by the end, when her integrity proves to be the glue necessary to re-construct a world fragmented by dishonesty, she seems more like a holy fool. It’s generous of Dee — a master at subtle savagery — to let us see this world through her eyes.
— Jenna Leigh Evans writes fiction in Brooklyn. You can find her here.