by Emily St. John Mandel
There’s a voiceover passage in Steven Soderbergh’s film Solaris that I particularly like. Toward the end of the film, a character tries to resume his old life after a harrowing experience on a space station:
I tried to find the rhythm of the world where I used to live. I followed the current. I was silent, attentive, I made a conscious effort to smile, nod, stand, and perform the millions of gestures that constitute life on earth. I studied these gestures until they became reflexes again.
The phrase has always stayed with me, because what are our lives, especially our early lives, if not a crash course in the customs of life on earth? We are trying to make sense of this strange world in which we’ve found ourselves, or at least I am, always, and there are moments when this world feels as foreign and inscrutable as the mysterious planet in the Soderbergh film. We perform the gestures of day-to-day life until they become reflexes, we try to walk the line between living easily in this life and disappearing into the crowd. A condition of being alive in the world is that we will not always understand this place, or each other.
I found myself thinking of the Solaris quote while I was reading Nicole Wolverton’s spare and harrowing debut novel, The Trajectory of Dreams. Not so much for the space travel aspects of the book, but for the protagonist’s profound alienation.
Wolverton’s protagonist is Lela White, a Houston sleep technician with a secret life. Nothing about human interaction comes naturally to her. She has studied the habits of the species with diligence, but her reflexes are hopelessly out of sync. She’s spent some time practicing her smile in the mirror, for instance, but adults have a tendency to wince or gasp involuntarily when her smile “slams into place.” Children sometimes burst into tears.
She lives a precisely-ordered double life. She is competent and unfailingly professional in her job as a sleep technician, but her real life is played out after hours. Lela is of the generation of schoolchildren who watched the Challenger explode on live television. She’s convinced that her mother played a role in the disaster, and she believes the universe has entrusted her with a secret mission to protect the American space program from further catastrophe. The mission requires breaking into homes and observing astronauts as they sleep, an assassination plan at the ready in case one should wake up and see her standing there by the bed. It is of utmost importance that the astronauts sleep well.
Lela has lived alone since the death of her father a year ago, although she still hears his voice. Lela’s unhinged and abusive mother left when Lela was a child, much to Lela’s relief, although Lela finds herself troubled at times by the fact that her mother left all of her possessions—even her underwear—behind. It seems best not to think about this too deeply. Lela’s primary companion is her cat, Nike, with whom she discusses the finer points of her mission. Nike often has useful advice. Naturally, Lela’s convinced of her own sanity, but living in the world requires a set of skills that she knows she hasn’t entirely mastered, and she’s aware at times that something is amiss:
There had been times we’d been a happy family, but Mom’s weirdness as I got older made sure we didn’t stay that way. There was something that had constricted its grip on me after she was gone, too. The shuttle disaster, her role in it, my mother’s leaving… it all had something to do with the way my skin hugged me like a straitjacket.
She goes every day to a Russian tea house, where it’s important that she always order the same thing. Here she meets Zory Korchagin, a Russian astronaut on loan from his homeland. Zory’s beloved grandmother was mentally ill, he tells Lela, but she seemed normal to him. Perhaps because of this, he has certain blind spots. To Lela, their burgeoning romance is an opportunity for closer study; she’ll be able to take notes on Korchagin’s sleep patterns without breaking into his home. Although it’s always possible, of course, that the universe will require her to test her commitment to her mission by killing him.
The Trajectory of Dreams is a wholly original and fearlessly dark novel, an interesting combination of psychological thriller and character study. In Lela White, Wolverton has created one of the most haunting unreliable narrators I’ve ever come across. Lela’s illness is a curtain between herself and the world. She can see through only dimly. She feels and sees things others don’t—“A howling rose out of the pavement and wound around my ankles”—and Wolverton is at her best in her depiction of the queasy mismatch between Lela’s perceptions and what the reader knows or suspects to be true.
She lives in a dangerous world of patterns and signs, of plots and assassination plans. If a coworker invites Lela to join her for lunch, then obviously the coworker is trying to kill her; the only question is whether Lela should strike first, preemptively, or bide her time. Lela has drifted very far from the realm of consensual reality, and the book’s considerable tension arises from the question of just how far she will go. She is heartbreaking, because for the moment at least she is lost. She is both deeply sympathetic and extremely dangerous.
The Trajectory of Dreams is Wolverton’s debut, but she’s been honing her skill for some time. Wolverton, who is in her early forties, has published several short stories and wrote a half-dozen other manuscripts prior to Trajectory, “which are mouldering away in a drawer,” she wrote recently, “never to be seen again. … I’m not sure who said it first, but there’s that whole thing about writing a million words of crap before you find your voice and get to a place where your writing isn’t wretched.”
She has come to a place where her writing sings with tension.
Emily St. John Mandel has published three novels, most recently The Lola Quartet, which was a #1 Indie Next pick. She is a staff writer for The Millions. Her essays and short stories have been included in a number of anthologies, and will appear in the forthcoming collections Goodbye to All That: Writers on Loving and Leaving New York (Seal Press, 2013) and The Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is married and lives in Brooklyn.