Closet a group of people with limited creature comforts, seal the door and watch what happens. It’s an appealing recipe for storytellers and reality-show producers. No less a novelist than T.C. Boyle used it for his latest, “The Terranauts,” in which the participants in a Biosphere 2-style experiment are mostly focused upon squabbling, hunger and hanky-panky.
Meg Howrey employs a similar premise but far more deftly in her third novel, “The Wanderers.” Three astronauts who have been chosen for a future mission to Mars are required to simulate the experience first. That means spending 17 months parked in the Utah desert in space modules. In depicting their interactions with one another and with their families “back on Earth,” Howrey subtly explores the tensions between our inner and projected selves. Thanks to her wry sense of humor, it totally works.
Helen Kane, widowed and 53, is the most experienced astronaut chosen for the mission, underwritten by a multinational called Prime Space. Helen’s desire for space (in both senses of the word) has meant that she has forever failed her daughter, Mireille, an actress simmering with resentment at her own inadequacy next to her perfect astronaut mother (not the same as being a perfect mother, Mireille makes clear).
While the book remains in the narrator’s third-person voice, chapters pivot among the perspectives of Helen, the two other astronauts — Sergei from Russia and Yoshi from Japan — and their family members: Yoshi’s quirky wife, Madoka, a saleswoman for a company that manufactures robotic caregivers; and Sergei’s 15-year-old son, Dmitri, who begins to secretly explore his attraction to men.
The non-astronauts strive to maintain a cheerful front for their successful loved ones, but they can just barely tolerate the space-race mania during a two-week family orientation before the launch. At dinner, Mireille, fed up with playing the doting daughter, fantasizes about “throwing the plate of food at the wall and jumping up on the table. ‘Simulate this!’ she could shout.” Indeed, everyone pretends. (It’s no accident that the first time Helen, Yoshi and Sergei meet, they attend a Kabuki performance — with robot actors, no less.)
Once the simulation begins, the three family members return to their conflicted lives, while the astronauts work to exhibit the laudable personality traits that Mission Control expects to see via video feed. Modeling the required equipoise gets sharply more difficult mid-mission when Sergei begins to suspect that the simulation itself is simulated and that they are actually on Mars.
But they are meant to behave the same way whether they’re on Mars or not. So does the difference really matter? Is there a point where a simulation — of a Mars mission, of the kind of person we aspire to be — is so realistic that it’s as good as the actual thing?
Howrey skillfully weaves these questions into an often funny story that grows poignant in its final chapters. We may never plumb the mysteries of space; we may never truly understand ourselves or the people we love, she suggests. But there’s courage in the attempt.
Christina Ianzito is a freelance writer in Washington.
By Meg Howrey
G.P. Putnam’s Sons. 370 pp. $27