A debut novel that presents several intertwined stories, set against the political tumult of the rise and fall of Communism.
Preiss sets his creative sights high in his inaugural effort, conjuring a dizzying array of characters around the globe. The story centers on Daniel, a 30-something man who practices environmental law—a specialty that obscures the fact that he actually defends corporate polluters. Like other characters in this book, his life was decisively influenced by a seminal experience in his youth; in his case, it drove him away from his Jewish faith into the austere arms of atheism. His marriage to a beautiful artist and fellow traveler in existential cynicism collapses, and he then seems to find true love with Susan, a firebrand socialist who disdains all things capitalist. Their love fizzles before it truly starts, though, and Daniel returns to his wife, Natalie, in a decision seemingly born more out of fatalism than fidelity. Susan, too, had a transformative experience as a young child, almost drowning in a pool, but unlike Daniel, her brush with danger pushed her in the direction of spiritualty. Another subplot features Irina, a young Russian woman who struggles to reconcile her Communist sympathies with the twilight of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, and who later becomes a famous actress in Moscow. She’s later discovered by Emmett, a journalist and former colleague of Daniel’s, and is thrust implausibly into Hollywood fame. What ostensibly connects these intersecting lives is not so much happenstance meetings, but rather the global unrest associated with Communism. The internal disorder of the characters’ lives gets mired, by turns, in self-pity or ennui, and effectively parallels the worldwide disorder generated by the collapse of a major political power. Likewise, the Soviet Union’s combination of political utopianism and authoritarian realpolitik is expressed by the way the main characters swing between pessimism and idealism. The plot itself meanders and even plods at times, and it also flirts with the absurd, as when a depressed Daniel seeks counsel from a psychic medium who channels the legendary comedian Jack Benny. Thankfully, its lively sense of humor, as well as a side story about Daniel’s legal fight with the Environmental Protection Agency, will sustain readers’ interest.
A complex literary drama that’s heavy on symbolism and existential angst.