In Clark’s (Monsignor, 2014) latest work of fiction, a college senior defies his parents in his quest to write the next Great American Novel.
Robin, an English literature major in his senior year at Cornell University, knows that his mother, Elaine, and his father, a history professor nicknamed “The Blade” for his sharp intellect and cutting put-downs, expect him to continue on to graduate school and a career in academia. Robin has different plans, hoping to travel and work menial jobs while writing a novel, which only exacerbates his contentious relationship with The Blade. Two experiences in the academic world have only strengthened his resolve: a pretentious faculty dinner with his father’s peers, and a high school class in which the students discussed King Lear. Both scenes feel unnecessarily long in portraying the tedium Robin feels, and the latter scene’s young students curiously have the same verbosity as The Blade’s associates (barring their overindulgence in the word “like”). As Robin deals with burnout, breakups, writer’s block, and continued clashes with his father, he struggles to write through graduation; later, he waits tables and meets oddball characters. Clark has crafted a multilayered protagonist in Robin, who, despite being self-interested and judgmental, is also incredibly sincere. The character has an ambitiousness and spirit of youthful rebellion that’s impossible not to like, especially given the onerous presence of The Blade. The novel resists straightforward plot in the same way that its protagonist resists his parentally ordained destiny, and it uses its considerable length to explore its characters. To that end, it often uses Robin’s own writings, including his winter-break diary and an extensive term paper on Romeo and Juliet. Although these sections shine light on Robin’s character, the author could have accomplished that goal with greater thrift. Overall, the novel goes to exhaustive lengths to familiarize readers with new characters, but it too often discards them afterward. This is perhaps most egregious during a scene at a party, late in the novel, which brims with hipsters, intellectuals, and artists; in it, the author meticulously explores each of the characters’ backgrounds with little consequence, as they barely interact with Robin at all.
A novel about a novelist that’s short on plot but long on character development.