In the opening lines of Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy writes, “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This truism, however, belies a fact that anyone who’s spent any amount of time with an apparently “happy” family knows: each happy family is unhappy in its own way as well. Such is the case in Thomas Reyfiel’s Time Among the Dead. Evoking the Victorian sensibilities of works like Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights as well as the yearning for a better age inherent in Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, Rayfiel’s latest novel bears nostalgic witness to the passing of the age of aristocracy and the social mores that went along with it. What’s more, as the values and traditions of one era give way to the newfangled ways of the next, the uneasy relationship between the past and the ever-changing present comes into sharp and sometimes painful focus, only to reveal that even the past, or at least our recollection of it, is as fluid as any chain of events unfolding in the present.
At first glance, Time Among the Dead appears to be about the tension between the narrator and his shiftless grandson, Seabold. Under the pretense of tending to his ailing grandfather, Seabold arrives at the family estate to live the life of a country gentleman. The only problem with his plan is that the estate is nearly bankrupt, and Seabold has no real prospects for either love or employment — until, that is, he meets the daughter of a local peasant. Though the peasant’s financial footing is firm, he has no title, and so the narrator, William, the Seventh Earl of Upton, has no choice but to put an end to his grandson’s romance. William’s machinations, however, are complicated not only by the sudden appearance of Seabold’s closest school chum, but also by memories of a former life that William has heretofore painted over with the romantic sheen of nostalgia. The past, it turns out, is not what William has been making of it, and in many ways helps to explain his troubles in the present.
One thing that makes Time Among the Dead an especially intriguing read is the narrator’s prescience with respect to the audience who may or may not stumble upon his journals in the future. His desire throughout the proceedings is to set the record straight for posterity, whoever that posterity may include. Yet even as the narrator struggles to recall his past and record the present accurately, he is plagued with doubt and uncertainty, for the fragility of the mind coupled with the complexity of the heart precludes objectivity. Our knowledge of the past and present, Time Among the Dead insists, is always compromised, so the best we can do is work with the information we have and move tentatively toward the future.
A truly enchanting novel, Time Among the Dead offers readers a glimpse into a bygone era and suggests that what really sets humanity apart as a species is our peculiar talent for divining meaning in the present from the ceaseless tension between the past and the future.
Reading Joseph Riippi’s debut novel, Do Something Do Something Do Something, is a lot like hearing Nirvana’s Bleach on vinyl might have been in 1989. We get a glimpse, as other reviewers have noted, of a writer whose potential is yet to be fully realized (and, thus, whose best works are probably ahead of him), and whose raw talent, creativity, and energy are palpable on every manic page of the book. Yes, Riippi has a somewhat maddening fondness for stream-of-consciousness paragraphs that go on for pages at a time, and, yes, he cheats a little by relating at least a third of the narrative through the eyes of a narrator who turns out to be completely unreliable, but such peccadillos are ultimately forgivable, especially in light of the fact that he’s only taking the kinds of risk that all great writers take when walking the high wire of great literature. (Faulkner, anyone?)
The novel focuses on three characters whose loosely connected lives suggest that none of us are alone in the struggle to make sense of the world. In one strand of the narrative, a woman with a starfish tattooed to her breast visits her brother in a mental institution and subsequently embarks on a journey into her own difficult past. In the second strand, a dramatist wrestles with the emotional impact of the dissolution of his marriage following the death of his infant daughter. In the third strand, an arts critic finds himself committed to a mental institution after attacking a stripper. Though only the first and third strands come together directly (the woman with the starfish tattoo is the sister of the committed arts critic), all three narratives complement each other in terms of both imagery and thematic content.
The title of the novel speaks to the existential angst of all three protagonists. As one character notes fairly late in the novel, “Hope is the only thing that makes us do anything, and doing something is the only way to happiness.” The only problem for the characters, however, is that hope is in short supply and that “doing something” has the ironic potential to eliminate hope — a fact that becomes especially clear when a dark skinned man boards an airplane and a panic-stricken racist starts screaming at her husband to “Do something! Do something! Do something!”
What is especially clear throughout Do Something Do Something Do Something is that Joseph Riippi is a student of the human heart and a keen observer of emotional complexity. His characters are all broken in some way, yet he has the patience to follow them on every step along their crooked paths to wholeness, even if said wholeness is no more than an illusion. A strong debut novel in the tradition of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and, to a lesser extent, The Catcher in the Rye, Do Something Do Something Do Something is, with any luck, a precursor to a body of work that will shine new light on the darkest recesses of the human heart for years to come. I’m fairly certain this Joseph Riippi guy and I would get along well.