Thom, Erik and Tree have a problem: they have a couch they literally can’t get rid of. After their upstairs neighbor’s waterbed accident floods their Portland apartment and leaves them homeless, the three decide to take a trip. Thom’s an unemployed computer guy, Erik’s a low-rent grifter, and Tree is a commune refugee who doesn’t like to work, so there are no impediments to their trip, save the apartment building’s owner telling them to take their couch with them when they leave.
That’s when they discover that they can’t get rid of it. The Goodwill worker turns them away. So does the worker at another second-hand store. A cop just happens to drive by when they try to ditch the couch at a burrito store. And never mind that the couch gets heavier if you try to carry it in the wrong direction.
So goes “Couch,” Benjamin Parzybok’s debut novel. It’s a blend of magical realism and picaresque novel, as Thom, Erik and Tree carry the couch — or are carried by it — through encounters with a wide range of people. It’s a welcome change from the many contemporary fantasy novels about vampires and the people who love them. The novel builds slowly and inexorably to its conclusion, the fantastical elements piling on top of each other. Unfortunately, as the couch’s mystery was revealed, I became less and less interested in the story, and near the end “Couch” hit on a topic I feel strongly about and I was yanked out of the story.
Thom provides the novel’s center. He’s a rational guy, someone who’s far more comfortable with the logic of computer programs than with people. As things get more and more fantastical, though, he finds himself becoming a believer in the mystical. It’s handled deftly, and was the most interesting part of the novel for me.
One of the big ideas behind the novel, as Ben has said elsewhere, is more of a question: what knowledge have we lost as we’ve lost ancient cultures? It’s an old question, one which leads people to fantasize about the Egyptians using alien technology to build the pyramids. I’m not a big fan of this trope, and was a little disappointed to see it turn up in what had been until then a very original novel. One character has a several-page speech about this topic, ending with his declaration that he doesn’t see doctors any more after a curandero cures his cancer by laying on hands. His speech presents the big idea in a giant wodge, the message flashing as if on a Jumbotron.
“Couch” didn’t immediately lose me because of this character’s speech. It was one character’s theorizing, after all. But then the trope showed up again in the mouth of another minor character, and this time it had an added layer of science versus belief. Once science comes to town, the character says, witch doctors’ cures no longer work. “Once roads go in, the logic of science comes in, television will come in, a Western belief system, people will take painkillers and decongestants.” It’s not enough that we see the witch doctor heal. It’s not enough that the novel’s magical elements are part of the story’s world. All must be explained explicitly, and we must be told that the magic really works until science shows up.
I don’t like being hit over the head like that, but even if I was okay with a shout-don’t-show approach, this topic provokes a strong reaction in me. There are countless people who abandon medical science in favor of alternatives, and it doesn’t work out. But there’s a ready-made excuse! “If the one being healed believes in the treatment, then the healer will be far more successful,” the character says. The unspoken corollary, of course, is that, if it doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t believe enough. You made the mistake of trusting in science and medicine. It’s us versus them, and by virtue of being a physicist, I’m in the “them” camp.
(I warned you this was one of my triggery topics.)
If you removed those two characters’ speeches, I’d have been fine. Goodness knows I balance rational thought with belief in my life, and the novel’s big idea comes through without those speeches. Absent those speeches, the story is strong and affecting. You may not be as sensitive to science-versus-belief as I am; if so, you’ll likely deal better with the speechifying. It’s just a shame I wasn’t.