A novel about a failed writer who wakes up one day and realizes his life has no meaning, so he goes in search of some. 1971.
This is not my typical read. It’s described as a “black comedy,” which is a phrase that usually makes me put a book down, not pick it up. I like comedy, but black? Exactly how black are we talking here? It does get dark toward the end, but for me the majority of this novel was more “grey” comedy. Some parts of it, especially in the first half, are simply laugh-out-loud funny. See, sounding better, isn’t it?
Another reason I wouldn’t classify this as “my type of book” is that it’s a very male book. It’s written by a man and focuses entirely on a man. (I’ve read that the book is autobiographical.) One could even argue that the main character’s wife (who’s almost always referred to as “his wife”) doesn’t have much voice at all. She’s there but not there. Ah yes, but this is the point! Nobody in the book is entirely “there.”
The story is about Lowell Lake, a man from Idaho who attends Stanford, where he meets his future wife. They get married young, and even before graduation they decide, quite haphazardly, to move to New York City. Once there, living together in a tiny apartment, Lowell is given the chance to write a novel, something he’s half-heartedly always imagined himself doing. (Hint: everything with Lowell is half-hearted.) So he starts writing.
The problem, he quickly sees, is that nothing’s ever happened to him. He has no inspiration. He’s had a pleasant life with no major hiccups. His parents run a motel in Idaho that, unbeknownst to them but perfectly clear to Lowell, is a sort of “whorehouse,” where politicians and the like come to conduct sordid little affairs. Through Lowell’s flashbacks, we meet his parents once, and we see that they’re perfectly pleasant, straightforward people.
But it’s this pleasant nature that has been Lowell’s downfall as a writer. As a man, it also makes him ill-equipped to handle the arguments he and his New York Jewish wife have on an increasingly regular basis:
Nobody in his family ever argued, at least that he knew about. They always agreed about everything, but on the other hand, they didn’t do much. Maybe that was why.
I love this style of oblique comedy. Lowell has a sort of awkward lameness about him that makes the reader increasingly desperate for him to take a stand on something and stick to it. Well, his novel-writing probably won’t be it…
The act of writing brought him neither transport nor release; it was like slogging through acres of deep mud and had the same effect when you read it. It read like mud. Totally by accident he had contrived to fashion a style that was both limp and dense at the same time, writing page upon page of flaccid, impenetrable description, pierced here and there by sudden, rather startling interludes of fustian and vainglory that neither adorned, advanced, nor illuminated the plot, although they did give the reader a keen insight on the kinds of movies Lowell had seen as a child.
Lowell goes through a sort of breakdown over the book: reversing his sleep schedule, drinking, dramatically losing weight, and eventually suffering a mental breakdown. At one point his shoes feel funny and he wonders if they’re on the wrong feet. This really alarms him, because this would mean he’s had them on the wrong feet for thirty hours. Luckily, whew! His shoes are fine.
But it’s clear that a change is needed. So his wife says, “It’s about time, thank God,” and Lowell goes out and lands a job. It’s editing a plumbing magazine. His boss is paranoid about losing his own job to an up-and-coming youngster, so he prefers to hire people who have no professional motivation whatsoever. Lowell fits in perfectly.
This section of the narrative is all told via flashback. The “present day” of the novel, where the action really starts, is when Lowell wakes up on his 30th birthday and realizes something is wrong. At his usual pace—an endearing mixture of desperation and bewilderment—he figures out the problem. His life has no meaning. Everything that he supposed would be only temporary has been going on for ten years. Yes, he realizes, it might be about time to make a change.
Lowell doesn’t do things quickly. His main life decisions are, in fact, the products of arguments with his wife. These arguments are frequent, quiet, and can go on for days, even weeks.
He wondered what would happen if he were to rage and stamp about the room in his overcoat like the husband of popular fiction. He decided he probably wasn’t capable of it. He was a nice guy. That was the sort of thing you said about somebody you had nothing against and nothing in common with; you called him a nice guy. That was what Lowell was, even to himself. A nice, considerate guy.
As a result of one of these quiet arguments, Lowell and his wife end up looking at real estate in a really, really rundown part of Brooklyn. Lowell falls in love with this huge hundred year old house that’s currently inhabited by about twenty poor families of various ethnic backgrounds. The place is beyond thrashed. There’s even a place in the basement where raw sewage has created a small, putrid pool.
What really attracts Lowell to the house is not the social problems of the area (which are impressive), nor is it a desire to make a place like this his home. What he really latches onto is the history of the house itself. He reads everything he can about the business tycoon who built the house. He becomes a bore to everyone around him, as all he can talk about is the house and its history. He’s burned through all his savings, and his wife may or may not leave him. Still, for Lowell, the restoration of this grand old house is the key to restoring some kind of purpose to his life.
None of the characters in this novel are spoken of very nicely. Even Lowell, the clear protagonist, has his faults painted very liberally throughout. Still, I would not by any means call this book a downer. It really is funny, but in a self-effacing sort of way. In many ways (characterization and plot-wise), it reminded me of Wish Her Safe at Home. Both books are about likable but slightly unstable people who find purpose in an old house and its history.
It also reminded me of other books I’ve read in which the protagonist fixes up an old house. I happen to live in a house that, when we moved in, was called a “fixer upper,” so I’ve somewhat been through the process myself. The main difference is that in A Meaningful Life, the house is so disgustingly far gone, I was both appalled and enticed by all the work that needed to be done.
This book is not for the sensitive. There’s a bit of language, a bit of racism, and a small episode of violence, but none of it is gratuitous. Usually, it comes across as quite funny. Also, the social and housing situation in Brooklyn back in the ’70s is pretty amazing to read about. For about $15,000, Lowell buys a rundown mansion in a collapsed Brooklyn neighborhood. It’s mind-blowing to imagine what that property would be worth today!