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Powells.com
Saturday, December 11th, 2004


 

Little Children

by Tom Perrotta

A review by Chris Bolton

I read the majority of Little Children during a trip to Seattle last March. The ostensible purpose of the trip was to visit my three brothers who live there, but I was also seeing a longtime ex-girlfriend with whom I'd remained friendly over the years. We'd been extremely close for the four years of our relationship, and had stayed in touch during the four years since -- sometimes platonically, other times not so much. I wasn't sure which way this visit would end up, so I brought the book, just in case. Good thing, too.

My ex and I had somehow become nearly perfect strangers in the six months since we'd last seen each other. Maybe the gulf had opened long before then -- who knows? By the time I was staying in my ex's apartment, curled on one end of her couch reading Little Children while she sat at the opposite end hidden in the latest issue of the Stranger, it was clear that a physical as well as emotional distance had developed between us, one that I wasn't sure we'd ever bridge. When had we become so incompatible? I wondered. Had we ever really known each other? Do we ever really know anyone?

I sought refuge in the pages of Perrotta's novel. As someone who doesn't believe in fate or destiny, I find it unnerving how often a good work of art comes along at precisely the relevant moment, as though personally addressing my own issues and concerns.

Little Children is just such a novel. It speaks to the alienation we each experience and the inherent impossibility of ever truly knowing another person -- everyone, after all, has a secret room, and a great many of us have whole wings devoted to secret lives and desires -- yet manages to do so with the sharpest humor I've encountered in a novel since Richard Russo's Straight Man.

While on the surface Little Children might seem to be yet another smirkingly obvious satire of a far-too-easy target -- suburban ennui being a particular favorite of contemporary literature -- Perrotta is less interested in mocking the lives and lifestyles of his characters than in exploring how they struggle to make sense of their confinement, to survive the blandness that consumes them.

Todd, the perennial "Prom King," avoids studying for his bar exam (thus dodging the law career he doesn't actually want) by watching a group of teenaged skateboarders. He's a stay-at-home father and the newest inductee into an enclave of at-home mothers who meet regularly at a playground with their little ones in tow. Conformity is not merely encouraged or expected of this group, but somehow aspired to, as though uniqueness were a burden rather than a gift.

Another group member is Sarah, perhaps the only one who's truly comfortable with her individuality and still fighting (even against her child) to retain it. An ardent feminist (and bisexual) in college, she now struggles to reconcile her former self with the minimum-security prison called suburbia. Todd and Sarah make a strong, almost instantaneous connection that leads them into an affair -- one that Perrotta captures beautifully, accurately portraying the danger of secrecy, mingled with the excitement of newness and the guilty thrill at the possibility of being found out.

If that storyline doesn't exactly break new ground, Perrotta finds his distinctive touch not only in the strong voices and inner lives of the protagonists, but in his depiction of the supporting characters. The betrayed spouses, for instance, resist caricature and become complex, fascinating individuals in their own right. We may root for Todd and Sarah, but Todd's relationship with his wife is almost as sympathetic (he's not running from a lousy marriage so much as from his own sense of inadequacy), while Sarah's emotionally absent husband, Richard, has his own reasons which are understandable in their own way, and at times also hilarious.

Perrotta's use of humor is dark and genuinely funny. A great many critics will extoll the virtues of a comic novel as "laugh-out-loud funny," but I think Salon's Laura Miller nailed it when she noted that almost no work of satirical literature packs the amount of genuine laughter in its several-hundred-page count as any given episode of Seinfeld or The Simpsons. Perrotta finds his comedy not in broad jokes or easy targets (thankfully, he avoids "satirizing" society's rampant consumerism with, for instance, an endless and obvious list of brand-name products to which the characters are unnaturally attached) but in the simple observation of human behavior. For my money the best comedy is rooted in danger -- not with the resolution of a mild family dispute before the half-hour sitcom ends, but genuine life-or-death struggles -- much in the same way that light colors are brought out more vividly when placed against dark ones. In the harsh relief of Perrotta's grim theme and a dark subplot involving the possibility of child molestation, the humor of his characters, their frustrations, and the predicaments in which they find themselves is all the more powerful and effective.

Little Children is also notable for its thriller-like pacing. I finished the novel on the train back from Seattle, which means I read it in about four days, close to a record for me. Like all books that become favorites, I could barely put it down; I kept looking for opportunities to pick it up again (of which I found a great many in my ex-girlfriend's apartment). Perrotta manages to interweave his various storylines with a headlong pace that accelerates toward a nearly frenetic climax. I've tried to examine his prose to see how he does it -- perhaps identify and isolate the unique ingredient that enables Perrotta to fly where so many others can only limp along -- but it eludes me. He makes it look natural, effortless, as though this novel just unspooled at its breakneck pace, fully formed, and he only jotted it down.

What really makes Little Children shine is its theme of isolation. Never before have I laughed so much and so enjoyed a book whose message was so essentially sad. No matter how close they believe they are or how long they've been married or dating or friends, none of the characters in Little Children truly knows the essence of the others -- at least, not as well as they think they do.

It's in this flawless depiction of the unknowable gulfs between each of us that Perrotta struck his deepest chord for me, especially as I sat three cushions away from a woman I no longer knew, nor could quite fathom, but whom I once loved deeply and passionately, and with whom I once shared a bond I naively considered unbreakable. I closed the covers feeling sober, alone, and delirious from the sheer rush of the narrative. It's a feeling I cannot equate with any other novel I've read.

A cliché of book critics is tagging a disposable work "unforgettable." Nine months after that trip to Seattle, Little Children looks to be the rare book that will actually stand up to that title; I haven't forgotten it yet, and I don't imagine I will.


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