A man and a woman are having breakfast and discussing the paper. “I read yesterday that a man was caught having sex with his car,” the woman says, “Not in his car, but with his car. Do you understand what I’m telling you? He was having relations with an automobile. Apparently it had been going on for years, this affair with a car. Of course, they didn’t disclose the gentleman’s name. Or the car’s, for that matter. I can’t remember what kind…it’s all the same. This is the world we live in now. Men fuck cars and they report this in the newspaper. We deem it newsworthy.”
Robert Lopez’s characters don’t speak like actual humans, and his new novel might not even technically be a novel. Originally written as a three-act play, All Back Full never made it to the stage, so Lopez adapted the material into book form. Whatever you want to call it, the result is a languid, complex, and stylish primer for our post-truth world. “I didn’t want to reimagine it as a domestic fiction,” he explains to the Voice. “It wasn’t going to be some John Updike novel. It had to be different than that. It had to be a little weird.”
Weird is an apt way to describe Lopez’s work, which includes two short-story collections and two novels. A professor at Columbia University, Pratt Institute, and the New School’s writing programs, the 45-year-old aims to “cultivate uniqueness” among his students. The same holds true for his own work, which frequently wrests uncomfortable laughs from repressed characters trapped in isolation and obfuscation. Set entirely at a kitchen table in a Cape Cod–style cottage one lazy Sunday, All Back Full maintains the three-act structure of a play. In the first act, a man and a woman eat breakfast and read the morning paper; in the second, the man and a friend drink whiskey, contemplating life; in the third, a dinnertime incident between the man, woman, and friend signals a rift in each relationship. The compact stage Lopez builds around his characters makes room for their musings on the quotidian, related by a hapless narrator who knows either too much or too little.
Our principals go unnamed, even as the narrator bombards us with facts about nudism, dolphin sexuality, the invention of the submarine, distemper, and Joyce Kilmer. A conversation between the man and woman about saving seagulls quickly devolves into a brief history of Stanislavski’s production of The Seagull. A reflection on an abandoned car parked on the street becomes a detailed account of the first car accidents in America and overseas. A particularly long pause in conversation allows us to peek into the neighbors’ houses and provides a timeline on the history of their pets.
The breathless narration and factual digressions stand at odds with the characters’ conversations, curt back-and-forths about mundane lives peripheral to our own. The man, the woman, and the friend are middle-aged and vague about what they do. Their exchanges can be easy to gloss over. Don’t. Lopez and his characters enjoy massaging language, and are quick to exploit its failings. When the man relates a near-death experience to his friend, the grim exchange turns playful:
“The friend says, How did you almost drown, again?
“The man says, It was in the river. The current.
“The friend says, That’s right. What were you doing in the river?
“The man says, Drowning.”
This sort of playfully obtuse exchange is a hallmark of the way Lopez’s characters attempt to communicate. You can’t trust what anyone says, even if you thoroughly enjoy how they’re saying it. Lopez says he works primarily on the sentence level, and it shows. With one sleight against convention, he manages to transform pleasant chitchat into electric prose.
The mental exercises and menial small talk Lopez’s characters engage in can be taxing, better suited for the stage than the page. Dense, staccato sentences read like geometry theorems or a cerebral game intellectuals played in eighteenth-century France. The man, the woman, and the friend drill into their subjects with such veracity that often nothing is left to make sense of. It is a trick of the pen. This same precision talks around the book’s most stunning revelations, all the while teasing the reader with what’s to come.
“This is our problem right here. We seek understanding. We crave it. We want to touch it, hold it. But understanding doesn’t want this. Understanding wants nothing to do with us,” the friend tells the man in Act 3. It’s as close to a self-aware moment as one of Lopez’s compulsive truth-benders can have.
The honest moments the narrator and principals close in on can be swept away in an overabundance of trivia and reinterpretations of history, only to gain buoyancy at the novel’s emotional climax. When ugly truths wash ashore, characters are left stranded and the narrator blindsided. Despite the narrator’s penchant for relaying academic-sounding essays, Lopez methodically undermines the idea of the omniscient storyteller, revealing how easy it is to forge fact out of fiction. In the age of alternative facts, Lopez is the unlikely source of a timely lesson.
All Back Full
By Robert Lopez
Out February 14