Stewart O’Nan’s Last Night at the Lobster reminds one that small can be engrossing and that real stories often underlie the vast news that floods our lives. One of the two epigraphs for Last Night at the Lobster says “Darden Restaurants, Inc., raised its outlook and expects full year 2005 diluted net earnings per share growth in the range of 22% to 27%….” Normally we’d skip by that headline on page C7 of the Wall Street Journal.
But underneath the earnings reports, sometimes far underneath it, are the people doing the earning. In this case it’s Manny DeLeon, who’s managing (Manny? Manage? Get it?) a Lobster joint closely modeled on a Red Lobster as it closes permanently. He’s self-aware enough to know that his activities aren’t likely to shake the counsels of the great, but he’s also trying to do what he can to do well for its own sake—in this respect, he’s like a writer with a limited audience who nonetheless takes pride in the craft itself. Furthermore, Manny seems human, aware, as when he’s pondering a perhaps finished affair with Jacquie one of the waitresses. The specifics fall away, and “All he can recall are still images—her black hair wet and heavy from the shower, her stockings laid over a chair, the glass of water on the floor by her bed holding the light from the window—yet instead of weakening with time, they’ve grown more powerful, liable to paralyze him if he dotes on them too long.”
Those images aren’t susceptible to the moves of the stock market or socioeconomic positioning: once they’re Manny’s, they’re his forever. If that were somehow the “lesson” of Last Night at the Lobster, it wouldn’t be much of a book. It’s more of a slice of life, or a whisper about an event that one can’t entirely make sense of: one has to run the Lobster on the last day of its life, but how does one draw any larger ideas from that? And if one can’t, does it matter? The classical economics answer would be “no,” but the answer for Manny is yes.
If it weren’t, his non-relationship relationship with Jacquie would be equally empty: they have nothing to commit themselves to one another outside of wanting something to commit to. If I were more fond of grandiose pronouncements, I might say that Last Night at the Lobster is about finding a place to anchor in a transitory, bottomless society, where the tides now rearrange the world faster than people can keep up. Hence the failing Lobster in the failing mall in the failing town where people nonetheless do what they can, even if it’s not enough. For it to be enough, you have to be a master of abstraction, creativity, computer science, unusual skills, and more: yet most people aren’t up to that. They’re still people, even as they shake downwards to the Lobster, where they can still succeed on different definitions than what social cues shout success is.
For all this commentary, the narrative tension in Last Night at the Lobster is slack and the sense of anything major being at stake is absent; Manny’s soul is muted and confused more than tortured, and in this sense the book might be a defining work of realism, since it seems that few go through life with Nietzschian-esque metaphysical worries. Last Night at the Lobster also reminds me of some of the European novels that I called sheer and taunt; this book is equally short, and if it’s more explanatory than In our Strange Gardens or The Reader, there nonetheless isn’t a tremendous amount of emotional energy invested in its characters, who are nearer to short story sketches than to round, novelistic heroes or anti-heroes. But the moments and images tide the novel, as when “The guy with the bow tie nods as he passes, one boss to another, as if Manny’s done all this for him.” There’s so much in the line that I stopped and pondered it, asking too: how often have I been the guy in the bow tie? Manny? The crew that set up?
I don’t see too many novels like Last Night at the Lobster. As Mark Sarvas and Alain de Botton have pointed out, books about work are fairly uncommon. I hadn’t noticed till they observed it, but I find innumerable books on my shelves about love, affairs, geography, family, and destiny, but few about what people do to support those other endeavors. Perhaps that’s because writers are deracinated from the larger work world, as de Botton has suggested, or perhaps that’s because work can seem too mundane or not worthy of literary fiction’s point of view and linguistic pyrotechnics or genre fiction’s suspenseful plots. In The Grapes of Mild Outrage, Mark Athitakis writes that “… though O’Nan has admirable respect for his characters, the overall tone is one of defeat—the Red Lobster in which the novel is set is about to close forever, the snow outside is miserable, and nobody cares to thinks much about the restaurant itself.” I’m not sure if the tone is so much one of defeat as of recognition. And isn’t self-recognition part of what the novel is supposed to lead us to, and what life is supposed to be about?
On a final, structural note, I was ready to pass on Last Night at the Lobster till positive recommendations rescued it—most notably Terry Teachout. Book publicists occasionally ask me how they can get me to read their books or what kind of books I pick up, and the short answer to both is often that if they get Teachout, Sarvas, Nigel Beale, Tyler Cowen, Kate Sutherland, John Scalzi or a handful of others I’m no doubt forgetting to write favorably a book, the probability of me reading it skyrockets—as does the probability of me getting something from the book, even when I don’t necessarily like it without reservations; this happened with two books Sarvas liked, including The Gift and Nobility of Spirit, both of which were not self-critical enough and overly indulgent despite having powerful messages to avoid the cynicism that’s par for the contemporary course. In terms of books, I often look for social proof: the idea that, if others whose opinions I trust recommend a book, I’m more likely to read it. I still at least begin everything I’m sent, and I’m only too happy to find a book delightful—like the recent Carlos Ruiz Zafon novel, The Angel’s Game, which I need to post about shortly—but it doesn’t hurt to let in some air from elsewhere too.
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