We: A Novel
- Michael Landweber
- Coffeetown Press
- 184 pp.
- Reviewed by Tom Young
- September 4, 2013
A double self combines innocence and experience to try to avert a family tragedy.
Imagine waking up inside the body of your childhood self. Not going back to childhood; you still have all your adult knowledge and memories. But coexisting with yourself as a 7-year-old, living in the little body with all its limitations, and trying to make the kid you used to be understand what’s happening.
Imagine further that your grown-up self knows your sister will suffer a horrific attack in three days. The attack will ruin her life and lead to her suicide. You have to make the child you were listen to your warnings and take the right actions to change a tragic family history.
With that ambitious and original premise, Michael Landweber begins his story We. The author has set himself a difficult task, employing a narrator who feels a child’s emotions but retains the perspective of an adult, however troubled.
Landweber navigates this tricky terrain well. He describes the actions of the child, Binky, in third person. The thoughts and actions of the 42-year-old, Ben, come in first person. Ben realizes, “I had not lost myself; I had been transplanted. But it didn’t make sense. How could we both be here?”
The scene carries echoes of Kafka’s Gregor, who woke to find himself transformed without explanation into a giant insect. Only after getting well into the novel does the reader learn that an accident has given Ben a unique chance to repair the past. At one point he looks around at his classmates, knowing their futures:
go to Harvard. I would go to Columbia. Paul became a doctor. Helen smoked a lot
Ben also revisits the grownups of his childhood, and he can now analyze them as an adult. His second-grade teacher, for example:
was a screamer. This body of ours flinched, joining the others in snapping to
attention. But I observed her at the front of the room and realized what I
could not have known before. This woman was afraid of us. Barely out of school,
probably teaching her first class, she was in over her head.”
Suspension of disbelief holds up pretty well throughout the story — except during dream sequences in which Freudian concepts take form and shape in ways a little too strange to follow:
“The id flew toward
me unchecked. I saw the tiny green ball of superego trailing just behind it and
this time I knew it would not help me. Binky’s existence as an independent
human being was threatened. There was only one correct course of action for the
superego in this case — destroy the intruder.”
These dream sequences, which at times read like the most opaque sections of the Book of Revelation, add little to the story. But the rest of the novel works so well that it gives the reader patience to wade through the dreams.
Eventually Ben realizes he needs help to try to change his sister’s fate; he can’t do it alone with the body of a second-grader. One of the best scenes comes when, working collectively with Binky, he reveals himself to his brother:
that’s how you know what’s going to happen to Sara, isn’t it? He’s telling
you.” Charles paused. “You’re telling yourself?”
nodded. We cried, hot salty tears thawing out our fear. Charles hugged us, a
completely selfless act beyond his years.
go then,” he said. “We still have time.”
Landweber apparently approached this project with a go-big-or-go-home attitude. He aimed high and hit the mark, pulling off a fusion of literary novel and psychological drama.
Tom Young is an Air National Guard veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan. His war experiences inspired his novels The Warriors, The Renegades, Silent Enemy and The Mullah’s Storm. Visit his Website at www.tomyoungbooks.com.