Alone Together

The young publishers at MacAdam/Cage gamble on new writers.

There’s a potent, near-ferine creativity exclusive to youth, as independent publisher MacAdam/Cage is well aware. Not only is the San Francisco house a youngster itself—its fourth anniversary comes later this year—it’s also made its name publishing first, often experimental, works by young and unknown authors. Following an example set by the Denver indie MacMurray & Beck, which the house acquired in 2000, MacAdam/Cage has moved in three years from publishing five books a season to 30, with a few of these, such as Beth Ann Bauman’s Beautiful Girls, receiving serious appraisal and praise.

Top among the latest crop is Amy Koppelman’s dark, moving look at femininity and depression, A Mouthful of Air. Written with a dreamlike intensity, the book chronicles the life of fragile new wife and mother Julie Davis in the months following her release from a psychiatric hospital after attempting suicide. Caught in a storm of postpartum emotions, Julie finds herself in a world different from the one her domineering mother had prepared her for. Where are the promised successful husband, handsome children, fashionable friends and thin body? But her mother’s world is also shattering. Julie’s father has just left home for a younger woman—spinning her mother into a frenzy of plastic surgeries and endless home-movie sessions. Only Zoloft soothes Julie’s depression, an affliction “like asthma—it can happen anytime, and it’s beyond her control.”

It’s a bad time for losing control. She and Ethan, her compassionate but emotionally simple husband, discover they had conceived a second child the night before her suicide attempt. Harried by demons of self-loathing and damaged by her mother’s lifetime of prep work, finding identity within her new roles of mother and wife becomes a heartbreaking struggle: She’s unequipped to define herself apart from her family and shallow, dinner-party friendships. Always, the specter of sadness is never far away.

Koppelman is unwaveringly honest and graceful in her storytelling. Her journey into Julie’s tormented psyche paints a graphic portrait of a mind pinioned between regret and anxiety, revealing the dark corners of motherhood and marriage in the manner of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper a century ago.

The title of Rebecca Donner’s Sunset Terrace is taken from the rent-controlled apartment building where the novel’s disparate group of single-mothers spend their lives. Elaine Kierson moves her two daughters, Hannah and Daisy, in to start a new life after the suicide of their father. All three seem painfully timid and average compared to the rugged assortment of brash women who inhabit the building. Elaine and the girls fall in love with a 10-year-old foster child who lives downstairs, Bridget, whose life of sexual abuse and constant transit between foster homes has given her a self-preserving toughness the Kiersons can only dream of.

While Donner’s astute depictions of childhood and attention to detail make Sunset Terrace‘s women walk alive from the page, they never arrive anywhere. For readers who find a welcome realism in characters who don’t learn or grow this might be refreshing, but the story’s exhausted conclusion is unsatisfying if not hopeless.

The Anomalies, written by Joey Goebel, formerly of Kentucky-based band the Mullets, is a variation on the weirdos-finally-find-acceptance story. It’s also a good name for a band, which is why the book’s five misanthropic heroes choose it when they overcome alienation by forming one.

Their leader is Luster, a black glam-rock poet who hacks a path for their music in “stereotypical society” (those who “listen to typical stereo”) with his Ignatius Reilly-like rantings. Each “Anomaly” finds the strength to stand up to the status quo through a confidence born from cynicism, with the exception of Ray (a gentle Iraqi who came to America to apologize to the Gulf War I soldier he shot), who simply “talks to everyone because life’s too short not to.”

Each in turn will learn to find confidence through hope, at least until the book’s bizarre conclusion. Though loaded with enough nostalgic pop-culture references to make everyone under 30 feel validated, this novel isn’t about music as much as finding one’s place in the world. And even though it’s written from every character’s point of view (including a risible interjection by God), don’t expect a Faulknerian gravity to The Anomalies. Still, it’s smart enough to stir thoughts on what it means to be truly alone, a quality shared with A Mouthful of Air and Sunset Terrace.

A Mouthful of Air by Amy Koppelman (MacAdam/Cage, 212 pages, $23) Sunset Terrace by Rebecca Donner (MacAdam/Cage, 312 pages, $22) The Anomalies by Joey Goebel (MacAdam/Cage, 205 pages, $22)

Originally published in Willamette Week.