A Journey into the Dark:
Review of Some Sort of Normal (Richard M. Grove)
by Brian Way
In Kafka’s iconic short story, “The Metamorphosis” (referenced in Some Sort of Normal, Ch. 32 and elsewhere), Gregor Samsa awakes one morning to discover that, while his physical body has been transformed into a “gigantic insect,” psychologically, he continues to exhibit emotional and intellectual capacities. In other words, he remains human. Even though he appears to be a bug, he remains human. He ruminates on his traumatic condition and reflects on the dreariness of his previous life as a travelling salesman and on the drabness of his room and the weather outside, and he feels hurt in being shunned by his family, yet he still feels “tenderness and love” and duty toward them. In the end, suicidally, he wills himself to death to give them freedom—at which time, ironically, his undeserving family begins to herd his beloved sister, Grete, onto the same fatally “buggy” path. Gregor’s situation is pathetically echoed in the condition of Mark Beetleman, the protagonist of Richard M. Grove’s Some Sort of Normal; as Gregor has been forced into his terminal carapace by his family’s (and society’s) parasitic greed, Mark has arrived in his isolated (s)hell by enacting, and re-enacting, his own latent desires. Mark confesses to being an incestuous pedophile, of having had sex with his adolescent daughter repeatedly over a several-year-span; now that he has been exposed, in his own words, he is “living a nightmare … [he] can’t shake” (Normal Ch. 1)
To exacerbate his situation, at least in his mind, Beetleman is living his “nightmare” alone. Except for conversations with his often-silent therapist Dr. Waleed; with an acerbic confidante named Frank; with his extremely narcissistic self; and with us, the reader. Mark finds himself cut-off from everyone about whom he really cares—his wife, his daughters, his brothers, his friends. His life has become a serial soirée of wives and lovers whose names he cannot recall. Some Sort of Normal is Mark Beetleman’s attempt to come to terms with his condition, with his feelings, with the meaning of what he has done and who he is. The novella is his soliloquy in search of identity, his “book of bosh,” his “wheelbarrow full of horseshit” (Normal Ch. 7).
Several canonical pieces of literature, from Light in August to Death in Venice, from The Color Purple to Lolita, from God Help the Child to The End of Alice, have broached the topic of incest and pedophilia and Some Sort of Normal joins that club, bluntly and ferociously. Grove’s novel tackles this topic in its own unique way by abandoning linear narrative. Here chapter after chapter appear like random snapshots, pages of a disoriented, fragmented photograph album, all presented with a range of literary styles: traditional third- and first-person narrative, epistolary forms (letters and e-mails), diary and journal entries, and poetry, all effectively layered as a biographical palimpsest to capture Mark Beetleman’s fractured life. In these, Mark revisits the actions and ideas that have led him to remorse, doubt and desolation, including an account of his ascent toward the original carnal act and his descent toward isolation and suicide after his behavior is exposed. In exploring such dark recesses of the human spectrum, Some Sort of Normal unfolds as a complex and fascinating fiction, a compelling read that sheds light into areas rare to the reader’s eye.
Moral philosophers, from Socrates and Plato to Mill and Kant, have contextualized ethical principles—if one knows what is right, one will do what is good; Kant’s categorical imperative affirms the existence of certain fixed moral laws and posits the rational idea that humans will shape their actions in alliance to those codes. But what if you know what is right and still do what is wrong? One begins to rationalize—what is right; what is wrong; according to whom? Mark grapples with the ethical issues inherent in his action as he sees them, and spins the wheel of blame from self to daughter to circumstance to society to differing historical norms and even to the periodic vacillation of cultural morays. At times he seems honestly pleading his case; other times, he is the unreliable narrator caught in his own web of lies, maybe? He weaves in broken pieces a “beetle-man’s” quixotic vision of the issues at hand.
Sometimes, as reader, one is nearly seduced by Mark’s arguments, nearly buys into his salesman’s lingo of prepubescent sexualization or adolescent desire, nearly forgives him his trespasses. Other times, not so much. By the final chapter, one thinks of Dickens as much as Kafka; like some kind of Scrooge discovering Christmas morning, Mark wakes from a hopeless and frightening dream and, in the end, forces himself into the realization that he is not a cockroach like Gregor Samsa. He simply chooses the froth of a Cappuccino over the acidic taste of the barrel of a gun. Now, for that choice to be credible, like those Dickensian heroes before him, he needs only to discover a benevolent heart.
The front cover of Some Sort of Normal shows a picnic table beneath the waters of a flood—whether the waters are rising or receding is unknown in much the same way, one supposes, as the state of “normal” is ultimately indeterminable. In “The Garden of Paradise” by Hans Christian Andersen, a fairy tale referenced by the therapist Waleed (Ch. 23), a prince travels on a lengthy and dangerous quest to find eternal life in the original Garden of Eden. Once there, “on the very first evening” he succumbs to his human folly and weakness, relenting to his desire, kissing the princess and losing his salvation; Eden sinks into the earth forever beyond his grasp. Death then forces him from the spot “to wander about the world for a while” with the uncertain hope that he will find, far away in the future, a “happier life in the world beyond the stars.” And so it is in the end for Mark Beetleman—like that picnic table in the flood, his is a flawed, imperfect life and ‘some sort of normal’ is the best he can have and, probably, the best he deserves. He is a bug after all, but he is human too.
Brian T. W. Way
English scholar, writer, poet