See a town stucco-pink, fishbelly-white, done up in wisteria and swaying palms and smelling of rotted fruits broken beneath trees: mango, papaya, delicious tangerine; imagine this town rising from coral shoals bleached and cutting upward through bathwater seas: the sunken world of fish. That’s what my wife, Meredith, calls the ocean. Her father was an oysterman. Of course, that trade’s dead now, like so many that once sustained this paradise. Looking from my storm window, I can see Meredith’s people scavenging the shoreline. Down they bend, troweling wet dunes with plastic toy shovels: yellow, red, blue. The yellow one, I know, belongs to Meredith’s mother. I want to call to Helen, to wave and exchange greetings, but I know she’ll never acknowledge me after the awful things that happened to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller, early last week, down in my basement.How do we know this is going to be a darkly comic, slightly surreal book? Well, our first hint is in the title: "a better world" is a pretty big promise, the sort of thing that might not be deliverable by any single person, especially with the schlubby name of "Robinson." (Now, "Elect Batman for a Better World" seems reasonable.)
Now look how quickly the description turns ominous: the town is all wisteria and palms (aw, nice) and rotted fruit (oh, not so nice). The coral is bleached--like bones?--and cutting--like knives? The world of fish is sunken, which makes it sound like it should be above water and failed. The oyster trade is dead; the window he looks out of is a storm window--because in this town, we're going to face some bad storms.
So, sure: it's a dark book. But what tells us that it's unreal and comic? I think this weird funniness is signaled strongly by the odd juxtapositions, like the ocean water compared with bathwater or people combing the beach with toy shovels.
But the real dark, comic, unreality here comes in that suckerpunch of the last long line of the first paragraph and the tiny only line of the second paragraph. I mean "suckerpunch" almost literally here; just check out the two-step rhythm of the line, like a boxer quick on his feet:
I want to call to Helen,That central clause can be broken up into smaller chunks of info, but it can also be read as a freight train without brakes, "but I know she’ll never acknowledge me after the awful things that happened to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller." "Awful things" is nice and vague; "auburn-haired" is nice and specific--and they balance each other nicely with that "aw/au" sound. And then we drill down into the location of those awful things that happened to the auburn-haired girl: "early last week, in my basement."
to wave and exchange greetings,
but I know she’ll never acknowledge me
after the awful things that happened
to little auburn-haired Sarah Miller,
early last week,
down in my basement.
Tragic.If this were simply a story about Nazis or other war criminals, we might class that "tragic" as cynical humor or unfeeling dickishness. But with all the care that went into the description of the town and the humanizing touch of the family--his wife's name is Meredith, her father was an oysterman, his mother-in-law's name is Helen--when we read "Tragic," we're confronted with a crazy emotional and logical distance here: Something terrible happened to a little girl in this narrator's basement and he still wants to wave at people and stay friends with the town.