Lost and Found: A Novel
by Carolyn Parkhurst
The Amazing Race
A review by Ron Charles
In Carolyn Parkhurst's debut novel, The
Dogs of Babel, a widower tries to teach his dog to speak in hopes of hearing
how his wife died. That irresistibly bizarre premise helped the unknown Washington
author break through the publicity din and secure all kinds of enthusiastic attention
in 2003. Her new novel, Lost and Found, has an equally risky plot, but
this time the danger involves banality rather than freakishness. The title refers
to the reality TV show of the same name, and the chapters are narrated by contestants
racing around the world looking for clues to win a million dollars. You'd think
that tired premise would be the first one voted off the island at a network retreat,
but just last week NBC added "Treasure Hunter" to this badly worn genre,
so somebody somewhere must think there's more life here. Parkhurst doesn't help
her case by delivering all those familiar arguments about the cultural implications
of reality TV: the self-consciousness of modern life, the democratization of fame,
the artifice of contemporary reality. In the future, everyone will make these
famous points for 15 minutes.
But fortunately, what really interests Parkhurst
is quiet, private agonies of love and shame, and on this score she delivers several
surprisingly moving stories. As on The Amazing Race, the contest here is
really just an excuse to bring together a diverse group of people who would otherwise
never be thrown together. (Before reality TV, we had to rely on Lamaze classes
or jury duty.) The contestants come in pairs, most of which are just background
figures for the dominant voices that quickly emerge:
The two brothers from
Boston are nice guys but not too interesting. The "young millionaire investors"
are stick figures we never get to know. Same for "the former high school
sweethearts who have recently been reunited after twenty years apart." But
Juliet and Dallas, "the former child stars," add some bitter humor about
the corrosive nature of fame. Having lived her entire life -- even in utero --
under the celebrity spotlight, Juliet views her appearance on a reality TV show
as a chance to remake herself into a more "real" person, "good-natured
and down-to-earth." She isn't merely vain; she lives in a vise of self-consciousness
that renders her incapable of spontaneity or authenticity -- or friendship.
darkest, most troubled couple on the show are Justin and Abby, "Team Brimstone."
As they tell everyone, constantly, "the power of the Lord rescued them from
homosexuality and delivered them into the loving grace of Christian marriage."
They met in an ex-gay ministry called Redemption that trained them to discard
homosexual thoughts and channel their affections to members of the opposite sex.
How easily Parkhurst could have delivered the requisite liberal satire of homophobic
evangelical Christians. Not that there's anything wrong with that, but she does
something far more interesting and sympathetic. Determined to convince himself
that he's straight, poor Justin has been living a kind of reality TV life long
before Lost & Found -- always watching himself, tending his desires,
correcting himself. He salivates over the cameraman's abs while hugging his wife
in a desperate imitation of husbandly affection.
"If, for a moment,
a wiggling fish of a thought should happen to skim the surface of my mind,"
he explains with faux confidence, "I simply stop it in its path. I scoop
it up and hold it in the air until it suffocates." Parkhurst grasps the tragedy
of his conflicted soul: the constantly renewed cycle of self-loathing and self-righteousness,
the tragic misdirection of spiritual energy that eventually makes Justin a very
His wife, meanwhile, is more honest with herself about
the challenge they're facing. She adores her husband and longs to be rid of the
shame she feels, but, she confesses, "It's like teaching a plant to respond
to the moon instead of the sun." In one of the most touching moments, she
tells us that she can't wait to be very old, "when I can finally see myself
at peace. . . . Seventy, eighty, ninety years old. None of this will matter then.
A mother-and-daughter team, Laura and Cassie, serves as the
novel's central characters. They're ordinary people in a way the others aren't,
which makes them useful foils and more reliable narrators, but Parkhurst also
spends more time with them, exploring the currents of love and exasperation that
run between them. Laura worries that she's been a shamefully inattentive mother,
but of course the last thing 17-year-old Cassie wants now is her mother's chumminess.
"No one else ever loves you the way your children do when they're young,"
Laura thinks in the wake of a typically sarcastic, frustrating conversation with
Cassie. "I try not to spend too much time thinking about those days, because
I know they're perfect only in memory, and I know I need to focus on the girl
I've got in front of me right now. But sometimes I can't help but give in to it."
the cameras and the manufactured "encounters" of this TV show, Parkhurst
catches us again and again with these moments of real tenderness. Long before
the end, the million dollars doesn't matter; other things, far more important,
are found here. And that's reason enough to tune in.
Washington Post Book World gives
readers comprehensive literary coverage, including reviews, news briefs,
and guest essays from authors.
It's a weekly package of reviews, essays, and features on what's hot in the
literary world and can also be seen on WashingtonPost.com. Click here
for additional reviews and live web chats with reviewers.