The story comes to us as a series of soliloquies delivered — chapter by chapter — by the distressed members of the Oh family. The patriarch is Orion Oh, an affable psychologist descended from a Chinese grandfather with “inscrutable eyes.” Orion has endured a rough year: He’s been forced into early retirement by a sexual harassment claim, and his wife has left him for a woman. Unsettled by these developments, he decides to get away and collect his thoughts. It’s to be a “summer’s worth of drifting and wound licking,” he says. “Figure out how to shed my bitterness, forgive myself and others and start over. Orchestrate a reinvention.”
So he’s driving to Cape Cod to spend a month in a vacation home owned by his ex-wife’s bride-to-be. This may seem like an odd or even an inscrutable setting in which to recover from the shock of your wife’s lesbianism, but it’s not the novel’s most contrived coincidence. As Orion recollects the start and dissolution of his 27-year marriage, we periodically break away to hear from his ex-wife, Annie. She’s an artist whose trash-collages emerge from “the blast furnace of her pent-up rage.” She’s angry because she was sexually abused as a child and because her husband never helped out around the house. On the plus side, that animus has inspired her to create pieces that attract critical praise and lucrative sales: One of her most famous sculptures, “Birthings,” shows a “row of headless mannequins, their bloody legs spread wide, their wombs expelling serial killers. Speck. Bundy. Gacy. Monsters all.” But beneath that fame and success is a woman confused about her violent behavior as a mother and her upcoming marriage to a female gallery owner. “I kind of thought I might be a lesbian,” Annie tells us. “Which, maybe I am. But maybe not. Maybe I’m . . . what do they call it? AC/DC?”
Eventually, we hear soliloquies from the Ohs’ three unhappy adult children, a couple of neighbors and even Annie’s old sexual abuser. Together they present an exhaustive inventory of woe: teenage pregnancy, miscarriage, prostitution, racism, paraplegia, divorce, abandonment, homophobia, lynching, alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse, depression, panic attacks, drowning, robbery, assault, murder, Charlie Sheen.
When one of the characters on the beach asks, “He’s hurt? Was it those sharks?” the list of perils finally seems complete. There’s even an African American ghost lurking around in the Ohs’ backyard — the spectral residue of one too many tragedies haunting this tragedy-packed novel.
The problem with “We Are Water,” though, isn’t an excess of trauma, it’s a dearth of immediacy and subtlety. The present-day action of the novel is overwhelmed by recollections. Some of these memories are genuinely thrilling. There’s a deadly flood scene, for instance, that roars right off the page. But most of the novel is burdened with inconsequential detail — usually conveyed by banal voices that are too knowing and irony-free. Every one of these characters is subjected to the pop-psych maxim that “We’re only as sick as our secrets.” And so, out all their secrets must come, every phobia, weakness and self-destructive habit traced back with a black magic marker to a rape or a punch or a lie.
But do you want to know the most distracting verbal tic all these characters share? Would you believe that they all sprinkle their monologues with rhetorical questions? Does it make all the voices in his novel sound alike? Is it a particularly awkward way to provoke exposition?
Sometimes, one of these anxious people raises a truly provocative question, but usually they try to stump us with questions such as: “Whose parents are perfect? Who’s not carrying around baggage from childhood?” Or this head-scratcher: “I get up, start the vacuum. The front foyer sure needs it; it’s picking up a ton of sand. Then why am I stopping? Turning the damn thing off and yanking the plug?”
I don’t know!
Lamb is always a writer of deep compassion, and there’s never any doubt about his conviction that healing is possible. But that inspiring message gets thinly diluted in “We Are Water.”
Charles is the fiction editor of The Washington Post. You can follow him on Twitter @RonCharles.