Benjamin Rybeck, The Sadness, Unnamed Press, 2016
Reviewed by Gavin Buckley
Notes on The Sadness in no particular order: Missing persons. A cold December weekend. The "reclusive genius." Unrealized artistic ambitions. Homecomings. Family reckonings. A Hollywood actress. Debates on film aesthetics. A man beating himself inthe face with a rock.
Benjamin Rybeck's novel, The Sadness, borrows from the tradition of the noir-mystery novel to explore obsession, artistic aspiration, family relationships, and the slow-creeping phase of transitioning from young adult to actual adult.
A phone call sends Kelly Enright, aged twenty-nine, home to Portland, ME, in search of her estranged father, Miles Bennett. Kelly and her twin brother, Max, were three when Miles left home, and have not seen him since. This is a last-ditch effort to locate him, and hopefully, get some money out of him (she is down to her last couple hundred dollars). Kelly has not been home in eleven years, since heading off to college at the University of Arizona. It should be noted that Kelly and Max's mother died, under unusual circumstances, in the spring of their senior year of high school.
To put it lightly, Max Enright is socially awkward. Still living in the same apartment he grew up in with Kelly, he is a cinephile of the highest order, with dreams of becoming a renowned director. Max has extremely high standards for judging the artistic quality of films. For him, technically good isn't good enough. To cut the mustard, a director must possess "The Sadness" (Max's supercilious term for nonpareil directors like Truffaut). Despite his ambition, Max spends over a decade attempting to make one film, The Glazen Shelves (it remains unfinished). In high school, when Max began writing and shooting, he put his friend, Evelyn Romanoff, in the starring role. Max really liked Evelyn.
Despite Max's cinematic failings, the town of Portland did produce a local director who became critically acclaimed: Darren Stanford. Darren's movie, Land Without Water, is regarded as a cult classic and launched the Hollywood career of local actress Penelope Hayward. Needless to say, Max does not think very highly of Darren's work. Due to the success of Land Without Water, the town of Portland created a yearly festival, "Day Without Water," to honor the movie. This year, Penelope Hayward, will be in town. Kelly arrives home a few days before the festival. It should be mentioned: Penelope and Kelly were best friends in high school, but haven't spoken since Kelly left Maine. And to cap it off, Evelyn Romanoff has just gone missing.
Rybeck allows the disparate plot lines to diverge and converge while keeping the action (which spans just a few days) brisk. Kelly's flashbacks are the primary means by which readers discover character backstory in The Sadness, though Rybeck makes use of other nonlinear modes as well—namely letters and diary entries—to equip readers for the events of the weekend.
I imagine Rybeck had serious fun while writing the character of Max Enright. Max is bookishly intelligent, yet socially inept. Over the course of the novel, Max holds various interviews with himself, discussing the staggering success of The Glazen Shelves; he essentially stalks a girl for years while eerily covering a room with pictures of her (all taken without permission); and, oh yeah, he beats himself in the face with a rock. Through Max, Rybeck depicts obsession and ambition, amplifying each with humorous set pieces that highlight Max's bizarre interactions with others.
Some of my favorite narrative passages were written specifically with Max's worldview in mind. Rybeck adapts the language of the third-person narration to reflect Max's cinematic lens. It is filed with close-ups, fade-outs, and cut-tos. In short, it sounds like a director describing shots:
For a moment, the screen goes black—a rich, almost liquid-seeming darkness—and stays that way, making the audience wonder whether the film might have ended, makes the audience check its collective watch to see whether two hours passed already. (187)
While writing of Max, Rybeck's syntax coyly elicits pauses and smirks from ancillary characters. At a lunch with Penelope and former high school teachers, Max is looked upon with rightful hesitation: "The elderly squint, puzzled, as though Max is an odd piece of hexagonal fruit placed on the table—a piece of fruit nobody knows how to eat" (126). It is a comical, oblique way to capture Max's character through the eyes of others.
In a great scene late in the novel, when Max (nakedly) strides toward Land Without Water actor Ford Hunter in a parking garage on the morning of the festival, Rybeck writes: "the air laps at his skin" (171). Hunter then begrudgingly conveys Max to Darren Stanford's home. On his nemesis's couch (still naked), this time the "cold air [rubs] his bare skin" (187). Through this slight variation in verbiage, from lapping to rubbing while striding or sitting, respectively, Rybeck's conscious dictional choices take care to modify something as trivial as the air, making each sensation distinct.
While Max's story has emotional gravitas, it is Kelly who carries the emotional center of the novel. Her character has cultivated a deep loneliness while harboring isolating disappointment. The death of her mother causes an understandably intense emotional response, resulting in her cutting all ties with Portland. Kelly feels immense guilt for her mother's death; it has affected her ability to form relationships, both romantic and platonic. Here's Kelly on a night walk, musing about her past and the prospect of seeing Penelope again: "That must be loneliness, Kelly thinks: not being alone necessarily, but being surrounded by thousands of voices, knowing that thousands of people are there, yet unable to reach any of them" (98).
Kelly's relationship with her mother was, in a word, strained. Even after her mother's death, Kelly's resentment still smolders as she recalls her caretaker's alcoholism and naïvete:
Mom lived a throwback fantasy, pining for a lifestyle, to belong to something that no longer existed. She fancied herself a wild child—an artist, although she never considered working at it. As a result of this immaturity, the house wound up resembling a bohemian college girl's dorm room. (37)
And despite this, after her mother's death, Kelly goes through a similar period of impulsive and immature behavior, including the abuse of alcohol. While in the southwest, Kelly notices a tome on a professor's shelf: Robert Musil's modernist novel, The Man Without Qualities. This cipher spurs her towards phases in which she "acquires qualities," sometimes attending college, sometimes working at a skate shop, sometimes filling in as a member of a band. "On and on Kelly went…" Rybeck writes, "obsessing over each one for a couple months, until her interest combusted. Finally, twenty-nine-years-old, working a register—or, depending on the night, bagging groceries at Safeway... She thought, Here's my life" (93). As if by accidental homage, Kelly's psychic mirroring of her mother's life prepares her to physically occupy the intimate space where that life ended.
Ultimately, Kelly's homecoming precipitates change in her relationship with Max, and her past. However, a would-be epiphany is hilariously quashed as Kelly's presence is needed elsewhere. Rybeck is not the type of author to decree that his characters meet the superficial demands of narrative; rather, they are kept in perpetual and organic motion. They know best where they need to be. Rybeck's amalgam of dark humor and emotional ballast evoke in the reader a kind of happy sadness, the likes of which Max Enright might even approve.