By Art Taylor
Wednesday, June 16, 2010; C04
THE NOBODIES ALBUM
By Carolyn Parkhurst
Doubleday. 313 pp. $25.95
A number of ambitious and winning novels have been written about novelists themselves, from Margaret Atwood's "The Blind Assassin" to Ian McEwan's "Atonement" and Carol Shields's "Unless." Add to the list now D.C. author Carolyn Parkhurst's "The Nobodies Album." Not just a book about a novelist in action, it's also a meditation on writing itself and on the curious intersections between the imagined world and the real one.
Octavia Frost, the narrator here, has published several successful novels with a wide range of plots, among them: an abusive marriage viewed from an infant's perspective; an animator glimpsing hidden, unintended images in his own cartoons; and a 16th-century healer accused of witchcraft for trying to save her son. For her next book, she has embarked on a radical project: rewriting the endings to each of her previous novels. "I could see the traces of the hundred different stories I'd rejected," Octavia says. "It was all butterfly wings and tornadoes: even a slight deviation in any one of those places would be enough to set the whole book on course for a different outcome."
"The Nobodies Album" presents each of these final chapters and revisions -- a brilliant assortment -- but they're not the main story. Octavia wants to revise and set aright not just her books but her own past, too. She lost her husband and daughter in an accident many years earlier, and bringing up the surviving child, Milo, proved a turbulent journey. Four years ago, Milo discovered their family's history embedded in one of his mother's novels, which angered him so much that he hasn't spoken to her since. But now, en route to delivering her new manuscript, Octavia learns that her son, a famous rock musician, has been charged with murdering his girlfriend, and so off she goes to San Francisco, determined to protect her child. She also hopes that this crisis will prompt a reconciliation and that her writerly attention to detail can help uncover his innocence. Solving the murder, after all, just means constructing the right narrative around that blood-stained bed.
"The Nobodies Album" is brisk and engaging, though ultimately it features very little in the way of conventional clues or suspense. But the book succeeds in probing nuanced issues of guilt and innocence through an intricate collage of memories and musings, with excerpts from Octavia's novels and passages from Milo's lyrics. Milo's band is Pareidolia, defined here as "the human tendency to find meaning where there is none," but Octavia is more optimistic about purpose and meaning and about answering some emotionally richer questions. How should you raise a child? How do you deal with grief? What if you make a mistake? Or many? Is redemption elusive?
Those are some real mysteries, well worth grappling with.
Taylor reviews mysteries and thrillers for The Post and other publications. His own fiction appears regularly in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.