Casebook: A Novel
- By Mona Simpson
- 336 pp.
- Reviewed by Risa Miller
- July 7, 2014
A young boy obsessively eavesdrops to uncover the mysteries of his unraveling family and his mother’s new romance.
Mona Simpson’s latest book, Casebook, could be titled “What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You” — a lesson that 9-year-old Los Angelean Miles Adler-Rich, the protagonist of the story, has yet to learn. Egged on by his friend Hector, Miles is bent on a “Leave It to Beaver”-style caper to figure out what makes his mother (aka “the Mims”) tick.
In the first scene of Casebook, Miles crawls under his parents’ bed to “rig up a walkie talkie.” It’s not a racy moment. Tired of the way the Mims “decides his life,” Miles wants to better understand his mother’s motivation. Why won’t she let him play a Game Boy, not chess? Why can’t he watch “Survivor” on Sunday nights so he can talk about it in school on Monday mornings? But while Miles is under the bed, he discovers more than he bargains for. When his parents flop into the room, midconversation, he learns that his father does not think of the Mims “that way anymore either,” and yes, his father “felt aware of opportunities.”
Because the Adler-Rich divorce is, for the most part, friendly, Miles assumes his life will not be that different: “another life but an okay” one. Miles and his younger twin sisters, ingloriously called Boop One and Boop Two, will commute between two enlightened households. Dad takes them on vacations and the Mims encourages learning and abstract thought by writing quotes of the day — often by Albert Einstein — on a chalkboard in the kitchen. Despite the divorce, Miles persists with boyish scrapes and triumphs; for example, he undercuts the school cafe by selling noodle soup from a school locker, and he teaches children with special needs, whom he calls “Specials,” how to play tennis.
So it isn’t the divorce that breaks the truce of normalcy, but rather Miles’ peculiar path to adulthood. Out of curiosity, love, or obsession, Miles, in psychological parlance, becomes the male-protectorate of the household. Because he loves the Mims, he has to know everything about her. So Miles, often with Hector at his side, makes it his business to rifle through her drawers, her email messages, and her snail mail. He eavesdrops on a phone extension and even finds a way to listen through the pipes and vents of the Mims’ therapist’s office.
And there is much to overhear. Following the divorce, the Mims, who is “pretty for a mathematician,” talks to her friends and therapist about diets, her plans to develop her stalled career, and her long-distance relationship with Eli, whom Miles calls the “dork guy.” Eli is a kind of lunar experience for the Mims, as well as the family; his elusive and seductive presence waxes and wanes and is prone to total eclipse, and he causes the Mims to read into him a little more dreamily than a smart woman ought to.
Inevitably, as Miles and Hector grow into the sexual maneuvers of adolescence, they cobble together their ill-gotten information and believe they’ve caught wind of a lover’s betrayal. For the sake of the Mims, they attempt to teach Eli a lesson through a caper that is brilliant, heroic, foolish, and affecting.
At the simplest level of this not simple book, the narrative is familiar: a sensitive all-American coming of age. With its achingly accurate state-of-the-family declarations and the little sag in the middle when the reader is impatient for the boy to grow up, it’s best compared to Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, both well-known (nonfiction) memoirs. But, with an expert sleight of hand, Simpson spins out Miles’ tale from an inventive narrative point of view. No straightforward looking back here. Instead, Miles’ first-person narration also includes his filtered version of the Mims’ view of the world.
Not that Miles always understands what he hears and what he says: “It took a moment longer than usual for the words to line up into sentences. Possible meanings assembled, like a puzzle that could be put together in different ways but that still left extra pieces until the real form used every one of them.”
However, the mature reader understands implications and adult maneuvers beyond Miles’ perspective on the Mims, which produces a delicious and wicked type of tension. But to the reader’s relief, if not Miles’, his emotional intelligence begins to catch up with his ill-gotten information when, about two-thirds through the book, he has that aha moment and realizes that adult life — the Mims’ life — is a fine-tuned “correlation between pain and reality.”
By the end of the book, Miles has reached his 20s and finds expression in the world of cartooning, perhaps the logical result of running from the question of pain and reality or perhaps the logical result of answering it. The introductory note and occasional footnotes (which must be held at bay while reading) finally make sense and add another layer of emotional impact. It doesn’t reveal too much of the ending to say the reader is right to believe in and not judge Miles for his snooping. Such is the power of love.
Risa Miller holds an MFA from Emerson College and is the author of two novels, Welcome to Heavenly Heights and My Before and After Life, both published by St. Martin’s
Press. She is a recipient of the PEN New England “Discovery” Award.