Books

Seeking personal salvation in porn

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‘Mrs Fletcher,’’ Tom Perrotta’s ninth book of fiction, reminds me a good bit of Evan Connell’s great 1959 novel, “Mrs. Bridge.’’ The titles are similar, of course, but both books are also closely observed, insightful, amused and amusing looks at how marriages and families work and don’t.

Which is not to say that the books are identical. In “Mrs. Bridge,’’ the married couple at the heart of the book stays together; the family doesn’t really splinter; the center holds (although at a price). Whereas in “Mrs. Fletcher’’ the marriage has already ended by the time the novel has started; the family has splintered; and everyone seems to be looking for the center. Or at least a center. Plus, “Mrs. Bridge’’ is deadpan and full of mid-century, Midwestern reserve. Whereas the humor in Perrotta’s newest is sometimes over-the-top and more than a little filthy.

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At the novel’s heart is Eve, a divorced, 46-year-old woman who’s the director of a local senior center and who, at the novel’s opening, is preparing to take her son, Brendan, off to college. I can think of no other novel that so expertly illuminates that empty, middle-aged feeling when even marital bitterness and filial pride fails us. Eve should hate her ex-husband, Ted (who has remarried and has a young autistic son), but acknowledges that “[h]is guilty conscience had made him a lot nicer than he used to be.” She should be proud of her son, Brendan, but he’s a sexist idiot (more on that in a moment). She should be . . . well, she doesn’t know what she should be, and this novel is terrific at showing how deadening and terrifying it can be to have some idea of what one is but not what one should be: “The fact that her life had turned into this: this lifeless hush, this faint but elusive whiff of decay. This absolutely-nothing-to-complain-about.’’

But then, one of the pleasures of this novel is watching Eve try to discover what she wants to be. And what she ends up wanting to be is a woman who — much to her surprise — watches a lot of online pornography. This is Perrotta at his best: Where other writers would turn to satire, or outrage, or a deep dive attempt to shock-and-awe the reader, Perrotta empathizes: “maybe you envied [the actors] a little, but you also wanted to thank them for sharing this moment with you, and then that last barrier would crumble, and maybe for a minute or two you’d feel that you were right there with them, like when you heard a good song on the radio and the next thing you knew you were singing along.”

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This is not to say that Perrotta is blind to pornography’s potential to destroy, but rather he is very good at seeing why one would need to blind oneself to that potential in order to get what one wants: “When it was good, you could forget you were watching porn and accept it, if not as the truth, then at least as a glimpse of a better world than the one you lived in, a world where everyone secretly wanted the same thing, and no one failed to get it.”

Of course, we don’t live in a world where everyone wants the same thing, and Perrotta uses Brendan (Eve’s son) to show what happens when someone assumes that we do. Brendan is (to use the novel’s term for him, and maybe his own term for himself, too) a bro — sometimes an entertaining one (witness this conversation between him and his roommate: “Eat me, douchebag.’ ‘That’s hate speech. . .’ ‘Douchebag is hate speech?’ ‘Yeah. It’s offensive to douchebags.’ ”) but more often a dangerously deluded one, a young man who has uncritically and osmotically learned lots of things from the very same genre of online video that has helped bring his mother closer to being who she wants to be. And one of the great mysteries of the novel is where the stories of Eve’s rise and Brendan’s fall will intersect. And given what I’ve said it won’t surprise the reader to learn that they intersect in a bedroom.

If I’m making this novel sound as if it’s obsessed with sex, that’s because it is — agreeably so. I say agreeably because Perrotta is a contrarian: He knows how and why a writer should celebrate a thing that often gets condemned, and then how and why to shut down the celebration when it gets out of hand. This is why he’s one of our best comic writers: because of the way he balances light and dark. The former means nothing without the latter; but without the former, it’s impossible to survive the latter. Which is why it’s notable that, at the end of “Mrs. Fletcher,’’ in the middle of a celebration, Eve senses the darkness and then thinks, “It was nothing, really, just a passing shadow, and Eve had lived long enough to know that it was foolish to worry about a shadow. Everyone had one; it was just the shape your body made when the sun came out.”

MRS. FLETCHER

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By Tom Perrotta

Scribner, 309 pp., $26

Brock Clarke’s seventh book of fiction, “The Price of the Haircut,’’ will be published in 2018. He teaches English and creative writing at Bowdoin College.
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