The Spaceship in the Backyard
Science-fiction invades domestic realism in Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green
Nostalgia for the very recent past is as annoying as it is comforting. Reiterations of Ghostbusters, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, The X-Files, L.A. Law, Hey Arnold!, etc., etc., offer little more than pleasant familiarity to audiences and lucrative returns to investors. The recent popularity of Netflix’s Stranger Things — a pastiche of Spielbergian tropes and eighties references so precise as to resemble fan fiction, not of any particular intellectual property but of an entire era — is a testament to the power and popularity of remembering things not as they actually were but as they looked on television. Aside from the eighties-kid pandering of Ernest Cline, this trend has largely eluded contemporary literature, probably for the better. And though it is set in 1994 — the year of such era-defining phenomena as “The Rachel” hairdo, Kurt Cobain’s suicide, and the release of Pulp Fiction — Margaret Wappler’s debut novel, Neon Green, does not coast on easy nostalgia. Rather, it employs its nineties milieu toward aims infinitely more insightful and subtle than mere pastiche. Under Wappler’s scrutinizing authorial eye, 1994 is a specific and very real moment in time, not a nexus for a litany of obvious cultural touchstones. With evocative detail and restraint her novel depicts life in the nineties as it was actually lived — that is, with the slight addition of spaceships from Jupiter.
Neon Green follows the Allens, a nuclear family living in the Chicago suburb of Prairie Park, in the months after winning a government-sponsored contest to house a flying saucer in their backyard. Patriarch Ernest, an environmental activist, becomes concerned when he discovers the ship intermittently spewing green sludge onto his lawn; he then commences a legal battle against the organization responsible for the contest, New World Enterprises, that calls into question the compatibility of his moral idealism and his loyalty to his family. His wife Cynthia, who has compromised her idealism for the comfort and security provided by her work as an environmental lawyer, is too preoccupied to be overly concerned with the saucer, especially once she is diagnosed with breast cancer. Meanwhile their teenage daughter Alison and her older brother Gabe struggle against the strictures of adolescence and suburbia, only occasionally distracted by yet another one of their father’s environmentalist tirades or the green glow through their bedroom windows of the saucer’s “light show.”
One of Wappler’s deftest authorial moves is to resist symbolizing the spaceship. It is not an abstract manifestation of the Allens’ psychic torment, nor an allegorical mechanism demonstrating the corrupting effect of technology. It is a true and imposing physical object:
[I]t appeared to be little more than old airplane parts repurposed into a saucer. The same sharkskin metal bolted together. The material sturdy and impenetrable but also weathered. In some places, the surface buckled a bit or was scratched. The legs…looked like standard tubing from a hardware store, though with a silkier sheen.
And so it serves as a worthy antagonist for Ernest, and although no inhabitants are ever spotted through its darkened opaque windows, the ship takes on a character all its own, with a distinct narrative arc. The relationship between it and each of the Allens evolves throughout the novel; at different points in the narrative and through different characters’ eyes, the saucer is antagonistic, nurturing, pathetic, wounded, and always about as mysterious and unknowable as any human being.
Thankfully Wappler’s skillful close-third narration allows access to each of the four Allens’ interior lives. Alison in particular is powerfully rendered. Neither unrealistically precocious nor naïve, she is bright but melancholy, observant but lacking the experience to put words to her every feeling. She serves as the conduit for many of the novel’s most striking observations of both Midwestern life and young adulthood. “What a bunch of man-bots they were,” she remarks about the distracted way her father and brother go through the motions Christmas morning despite the grave prognosis of her mother’s illness. Elsewhere, in one unexpectedly haunting passage, Wappler captures exactly the combination of boredom and contentment that defined the pre-Internet afterschool hours:
On school nights, between 7 and 11, Gave and Alison’s world shrank to the confines of their home, and the options for amusement dwindled as well: watch TV, listen to music, play videogames, talk to their parents, talk on the phone. At some point, Alison would usually draw for a while in her room. Sometimes, Gabe would read, lately about the Vietnam War. He was glad he wasn’t eighteen in 1968 but oddly jealous, too. Everything seemed so meaningful back then.
Gabe’s thought suggests he views his own life as relatively meaninglessness, underscoring the desire for independence that grows in him throughout the novel. Moreover, Cynthia doesn’t allow herself to be defined by her cancer and neither does Wappler, who bestows upon her the nuance to be alternately brave, self-pitying, furious, and resigned — not just by her health problems but by her husband Ernest and his monomaniacal pursuit of self-serving justice.
And as well drawn as each Allen is, it is Ernest who functions as the novel’s focal point and whose growth is the most fraught and dramatic. He could have easily been a collection of quirks or a simple mouthpiece for the novel’s eco-critical themes, but Wappler’s narration is far too curious and compassionate to let his nuances go underexplored. In Ernest lies the exigence for Neon Green’s 1994 setting; the time period marks a turning point between the post-sixties political earnestness that fuels Ernest and the irony and disaffection he sees in his children that will come to define the decade ahead. Moreover, his tendency to let his idealism undermine his own comfort is the source of the novel’s most affecting comedy and tragedy. When we first meet Ernest he is in the midst of disrupting his own birthday barbeque celebration to clean up an insignificant lighter fluid spill:
Of course he knew that mopping up the spill would probably do nothing, that it was an infinitesimal smidgen in the grand scheme of things, but his fight was no less important when it was symbolic.
That Ernest possesses some self-awareness of his skewed sense of priorities but remains laser-focused on the cause is both noble and deeply, frustratingly sad. Like Harry Crews, an author with a similar penchant for grounding outlandish premises with complex and humane characterizations, Wappler does not flinch at the ugliness and pettiness that underlies her characters’ eccentricities.
And as alone in their own heads as the Allens frequently are, Neon Green’s structure, tracking in hyper-focus the family over the course of a few months, is the ideal form for showcasing the wit and compassion Wappler brings to her clear-eyed examinations of familial and social structures. By the novel’s conclusion, which without giving too much away is as note-perfect as any in recent memory, the hard-won growth of each of the core characters has been rendered with total candor. Even Ernest’s development from idealist to fatalist somehow reads as progress.
All in all, Neon Green hits a lot of familiar beats one expects from the “family drama” novel. What makes it flourish, however, is not so much the grounded wackiness of its sprinklings of sci-fi but rather its sensitive handling of its characters, which is never less than absolutely truthful. As Alison muses that regardless of “her family, her friends, who she thought she knew, there was only herself in the end to connect with, and only so much of herself to access at any given time,” the reader is thankful for the intimacy with which Wappler has shared her own characters.