Pam Houston’s kaleidoscopic new novel, “Contents May Have Shifted,’’ is structured around a series of urgent messages from the pilots of airplanes on the verge of disaster.
“I have been in crash position an inordinate number of times,’’ explains its narrator (also named Pam), a woman with a penchant for dangerous travel. The flight she has boarded in the opening section, titled “UA #368,’’ has had fuel-system failure two hours out of Sydney. And that’s just the first of the hair-raising accounts of near disaster in the air that make up the spine of the book.
For Pam, jittery moments like these are, in part, escapes from fraying love connections on the ground. Houston first focused her sardonic eye on the conundrum of the gender divide in her 1992 story collection, “Cowboys Are My Weakness.’’ In those early stories, her adventuresome, love-struck female narrators have best female friends, best male friends, and loving dogs. They read pop psychology books that teach them love means letting go of fear, and are suckers for cheating men who call them “babe.’’
“Contents’’ is narrated by an older Pam (late 40s), who is still not wise enough to avoid painful romantic pratfalls. This, despite the advice of therapists, acupuncturists, Watsu and Reiki healers, and a chorus of admirably attentive best friends (some of whom, sadly, never emerge as distinct characters).
Houston builds her story out of 132 highly crafted vignettes identified by place names - gems in a constantly changing mosaic. As if to avoid sitting still with her demons, Pam spins around the globe like a dervish, setting down in such distant spots as Bhutan, Newfoundland, Patagonia, Tibet, Tunisia, and Iceland (an unexpected landing, occasioned by yet another failing engine). “I know all about the anatomy of restlessness and the crossover point of adrenaline addiction,’’ she tells us.
Back home, a normal weekend commute is to leave a faculty meeting at the University of California at Davis, drive to Sacramento for a plane to Albuquerque, drive I-25 to Santa Fe, then up 285 to her ranch in Creede, Colo.
In some vignettes, Pam sends out bursts of tension and loneliness; in others, she describes how she extricates herself from one man (Ethan, an environmental activist who keeps a photo of a sad-eyed Romanian lover in his glove compartment), and mourns another (Henry, “the only man I’ve known in my life that I knew how to love well, and as luck would have it, we were never lovers.’’) And how, after a series of hilariously dreary blind dates, she meets a Texan named Rick who has the potential to keep her energies engaged. But alas, he has an ex-wife and daughter who occupy most of his emotional space.
Pam’s wanderlust also has darker motivations. She keeps an ongoing list of suicides, including her mother, “more or less unintentionally, with a combination of vodka, Vioxx, and anorexia-induced pulmonary stress.’’ And, she confides, “The first title for this book was ‘Suicide Note,’ or ‘144 Good Reasons Not to Kill Yourself,’ . . . I realized if I ever did kill myself it would simply be a preemptive strike to keep my father from getting to do it first.’’ We learn, mostly through peripheral memories unearthed in the course of massages for her aching back, that her father left her with many scars, including a femur fractured when she was four.
As if in compensation, the adult Pam seeks out rare natural wonders, such as tracking a pod of 25 orcas in Breakwater Bay near Juneau (a female dives beneath the boat: “I start counting, at five she rises right under my hand. The breath from her blowhole is cold on my face’’) or lifting off the ground in a small plane headed toward Alaska’s Wrangell Mountains: “I look down at the glacier and the ice-ridged peaks that go on forever behind it and say, Remember this remember this remember this the next time you think it’s over, because some man, or some hope, or some life takes away instead of gives.’’
Houston slides a sly reference to the novel’s theme into an academic scene in Davis. “Barry Lopez said we are pattern makers, and if our patterns are beautiful and full of grace they will be able to bring a person for whom the world has become broken and disorganized up off his knees and back to life.’’
The fragmented pattern of “Contents May Have Shifted,’’ much as it mimics our frenetic lives, is not for everyone. But there are rewards: a gradual unfolding of the knots of pain beneath Pam’s troubled back and emotional life; the artful ways in which the sections reflect each other; the steady revelation of multiple layers of wonder; the fragile connection that grows between Pam and Rick’s young daughter. And the near magical sense of completion in the final pages - the feeling you get each time a kaleidoscope clicks momentarily into place, revealing yet another beautiful form.Jane Ciabattari, vice president/online and former president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.