(Harper Collins, 2017)
A naked runner barrels down a hot, embittered stretch of roadway in Los Angeles, causing a traffic jam. We’re told we “might envy him,” and that he looks like “a superhero, but not one of the cool ones.” He runs ahead—ahead of the reader, it seems, from the way the narrative cuts from him to a different viewpoint character.
Enter Tony, lawyer and family man, his SUV trapped in the runner’s wake. In him, we see something we recognize: the same psychological underpinnings made mainstream by Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996). There’s some sense this white-collar white man is a proxy for all white-collar white men.
After, we get Ren—a young black man from Skid Row, Tony’s clear opposite in terms of station in life. Ren’s reaction to the running man implies he knows him; however, he’s unable to stop the runner as he streaks past the car. We then cut to another nameless character, a tattooed man we’re informed is the running man’s brother; he reacts to the streaker with a mix of disgust and concern.
We weave through this increasingly human traffic just as the runner does. Pressure builds: in the setting, as the police arrive. In the characters as they answer the running man’s challenge in their quietly dramatic ways. And in the narrative itself, as cuts between the viewpoint characters become more frequent. Ultimately, it’s Tony who caves, even though Ren and the tattooed man seemingly have more skin in the game. Tony leaves his car, starts running, and gets himself arrested. Meanwhile, the running man goes free.
I describe the prologue here to give you some sense for Ivy Pochoda’s ambition. The novel begins with a wide scope but only gets wider: two timelines, four years apart. Five disparate POV characters, the relationship between them deliberately withheld for much of the novel. In the prologue, Pochoda holds out the promise of unity, deftly giving the reader a reason to persevere, even though her aims are not always apparent. Ultimately, the 2006 and 2010 storylines converge on one central trauma, a climactic event with echoes and implications for the entire cast: a crime—and, perhaps more importantly, something to redeem.
It’s hard to describe Wonder Valley’s structure without inviting a comparison between it and another recent piece, Nathan Englander’s Dinner at the Center of the Earth (Knopf, 2017). A creative rendition of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the tortured and darkly hilarious perspective of an American-Jewish spy, Englander’s work involves three timelines and a half-dozen different perspectives—a narrative complexity vital in the service of presenting equally complex moral issues.
Both Dinner at the Center of the Earth and Wonder Valley demand much from their readers. Fans of literary fiction will recognize the structure: readers start with disparate plot threads and the foreknowledge that they come together, then wait patiently for the story’s truth to emerge. Our brains, perhaps spoiled by simpler titles, put in the extra work of staying on top of the who, where and when of the story.
Of course, there’s a catch.
Anything we commit hours to reading comes with certain baggage, i.e. “this better be good.” In the case of these dreamy, emotionally intense multi-plot novels, though, there’s a pointed expectation: “There’d better be something in this elaborate house you’ve built. And that thing better be worth it.”
If there’s no payoff—or, worse, a painfully obvious payoff, which cynics might call a
“moral”—then the novel’s content can’t justify its towering structure.
For Englander, this was only a marginal concern; he writes about a real and very much active conflict, ripe in complexities. History, current events, the familiar and accessible tropes of spy novels and war stories—these all work in Englander’s favor.
Pochoda runs a comparatively greater risk of boring us. But somehow, she doesn’t. There’s enough nuance at the heart of Wonder Valley to reward the reader’s patience. In an interesting change of pace, this nuance turns as much on the novel’s villains as its (anti)heroes.
From the prologue on, the story’s big question is fairly obvious: how can we live morally and authentically in a world where so much of what we are is chosen for us? The challenge ahead of every major character, whatever their background, is a simple one—be good—but nobody seems to have a clear idea on what that means. Choice competes with nature and nurture, and for most of the story, it loses.
Bucking expectations, the characters who’ve given the most thought to these moral matters are some of the worst people in the tale. For one, there’s Patrick, the failed father and phony sage who lives in the eponymous Wonder Valley. A temporally displaced hippie with philosophical leanings and a mean streak, Patrick provides wayward young people with food, shelter, and “spiritual guidance” in exchange for free labor. His favored method of “guidance” involves sitting his charges around a campfire, singling one out, then having the rest of the group hurl accusations at the one in the hot seat. These barbed statements are superficially meant to wear down facades and promote authentic lives, but have the unfortunate consequence of keeping the group divided and Patrick at the head of the wolf pack. Patrick is generally correct about his charges—lazy, self-indulgent types who want to feel good without being good—but seldom genuinely helpful.
But Pochoda locates a more poignant antagonist in the murderous ex-con Sam. A superstitious Samoan man with a story for every occasion, he’s the only character to match Patrick in his commitment to the spiritual—and, not coincidentally, the only character to surpass Patrick in wrongheadedness. But for all his violence, Sam is more a figure of sickness than evil. And though he has only a few scenes, his actions kick off the novel’s redemption story. During a pivotal moment, Sam remarks that “the world needs bad men as much as it needs good ones,” a proposition the novel challenges but never fully overturns.
Somewhere in the process of weeding out bad answers to the question of how to live, Pochoda arrives near a good answer: it’s not self-doubt, and it’s not self-acceptance. It’s not spirituality, nor is it a pragmatic commitment to reality. The answer’s not in the past, but it’s not in the future, either. It’s not inside us, as we sit and reflect around a campfire; it’s not around us—certainly not on the mean, hungry streets of Skid Row. The answer exists, but most attempts to engage with it fail. If the novel has an overarching ethic, it’s empathy. But even this seems too simplistic an answer to the issues raised.
In Wonder Valley, everything is fully realized. Especially the characters—first defined against the running man—and the setting—a portrait of Southern California that’s attentive to the harrowing issues of race and class but never embraces cynicism. Through the novel’s intricate structure, all the old moral questions emerge—questions kept fresh and interesting through the story’s relative silence on the answers.