The Literary Review
A Separate Reality: A Novel
New York: Caroll & Graf, 2006
A Separate Reality, which shares a title with one of 1970s guru-"Anthropologist" Carlos Castaneda's most popular works, opens with an old quote from the The New York Times Book Review vouching for Castaneda's contribution. The irony-and not one lost on Marshall-is that Castaneda was, in the end, a fraud-albeit a fraud that made visible for spiritual searchers the world over an alternate reality that was more real, or at least more resonant, than the world they lived in.
In an interview for his publisher, Robert Marshall figured it was unlikely that The New York Times was going to review his book. Yet his quietly intelligent debut novel about one lonely, creative adolescent's search for identity amid the indignities of middle-school life is precisely what most literary novels I've read this year are not: as deeply sincere as it is ironic. There are no clever turns of phrase here, nothing sardonic. Marshall's is a gentle, but progressively urgent interweaving of idea and emotion that, in its exquisite loyalty to the rhythms and patterns of thought, lays bare the contact of the conscious mind with the unconscious one; the tension between the real and the unreal. "The voice they think is mine isn't," he writes, in the inner voice of the young protagonist. "The one I hear mumbles fragments, slips in time. A shadow voice. When I use the voice they expect, everything's lost."
An effeminate twelve year old growing up in a liberal, Jewish, politically active family in 1970s Arizona, the narrator, Mark Grosfeld is a believer who is unsure what to believe in. He's drawn to mystery, but he doesn't quite know where to find it-Judaism is solid, but too rational, his father's liberal ideals admirable, but lacking in spiritual contours; his therapist well-intentioned, but brain-dead. And his friend Bruce, possibly gay, and seemingly more thoughtful than his other fratty peers, also happens to be possessed of an awkward violence that makes him a social liability. Like Holden Caufield and adolescent narrators everywhere, Mark is painfully aware of falsity, but in Marshall's hands, this awareness is elevated to the level of a philosophical inquiry: "Their conversation. . . never goes anywhere new. All false-but how can I prove this-with which word or phrase?"
Anna, Mark's beloved seventh grade art teacher, an ex-hippie with issues of her own, throws him a lifeline when she discovers his talent for writing, brings him into an eclectic literary circle, hands him a blunt, and forges a bond with him that hints-beautifully-at erotic. In between dreamy conversations about her own floundering love life and artistic false starts, she introduces him to Buddhism, Taoism, and Castaneda. The story is shot through with Mark's quest for "transcendence"-poignant in its false promise of perfect isolation from the world alongside perfect engagement with it. But while the quest offers a kind of refuge for Mark, it isn't enough to stave off his anxiety about who to sit with in the cafeteria. Loneliness pervades the story without overpowering it; Marshall's narrative is poised between the social world and the internal one, testing the boundaries, showing where they are most distinct and when they start to blur, touching the elusiveness of meaningful engagement with other people:
What's anyone like? There's no way to know and then you die. You spend your whole life thinking maybe you're starting to understand people and maybe you're finding out who they really are….Collecting little moments of truth. Pebbles on the beach. You think you're getting somewhere, even though you know, really, that you aren't.Mark is an outsider not only because he's gay and socially awkward, but also because of the kind of writer he is. Burdened and exhilarated by the peculiar belief that he must perfect his mind to perfect his writing, and perfect his writing to perfect his mind, he is headed, with dutiful rigor, for a spectacular obsessive-compulsive wipeout (a decade before the syndrome came into vogue). He is, after all, a seventh grader beset by the typical mire of social and emotional clutter: with timeless scorn, his peers mock his clothing, his lack of athletic ability, his sexual inexperience; they draw him into cheesy conversations; into petty cruelties. All of this gives way to spiritual and creative crisis: "I can't stop thinking about not thinking." Without a perfect mind, he worries, he cannot write the perfect poem.
Mark doesn't write the perfect poem. He comes close: he places second in a statewide contest, but after spending most of his thirteenth year composing an epic piece titled, "The Year of Dead Birds"-he is forced to realize that his efforts "sound cool", but are all but incomprehensible to his poetry group, and even Anna. "I tried to write about [my sister] Sharon, he says. "But it hadn't worked. It was still just her from the outside….The words I'd read meant nothing."
Marshall writes just about perfectly about writing imperfectly. As much as this is a book about isolation, or gay-coming-of-age, or the seventies, this is a book about writing, about coming close, the mountain-peak highs of finding the right words, and the gathering dread of inarticulateness: "The thing I'm most afraid of," says Mark, "-dying trying to finish a series of thoughts." Marshall is a writer's writer. But his prose stands in shimmering contrast to the predominant meta-fiction of our generation that seems to shout 'look at me!' Like the abstract expressionists Mark discusses with Anna, Marshall's prose seems want to disappear inside itself. What goes on internally is what matters, it says, not what ends up on a piece of paper.
And of course, he's right. For all the importance given to ideas, to art, to getting it "right", the resounding note of A Separate Reality is that human connection is vital, in all its unevenness, in all its imperfections, and perhaps most importantly, in all its mutations. Mark observes of his peers: "People changed; you couldn't see it happening. It happened somewhere else, somewhere invisible." In the complicated and rapidly transforming psyche of youth, relationships are vulnerable entities. Mark is changing. He sees holes in Anna's once-luminous theories, he drifts from Bruce, moves to a new school; he accepts that his deep attachment to his mother cannot possibly last. Yet amid all this shifting, amid his fear of imperfection, he doesn't discard anyone-he folds the relationships into himself, where they are reborn again and again as thoughts, feelings, images.
Towards the end of the novel, Mark lounges on the phone talking to Anna, who has, he notes without judgment, "started to repeat herself," and finds his eyes drawn to his mother's neatly catalogued collection of family photographs: "Maybe her idea of closeness is a dream, but maybe it's a dream that makes itself true. Maybe we need the pictures. Without them, the void, the dark atom-wind coming from the desert."