Recall the first time you saw The Indian Runner, or Rumble Fish. If you are anything like me, it was a chemical experience, and you left the theater changed right down to your fibers. I feel the same way about Dan Chaon’s writing, particularly Await Your Reply. If a poker hand included these three cards, and I was dealt The Lola Quartet by Emily St. John Mandel, it would be hard to beat. Ms. Mandel is in the same class as Dan Chaon, and it is a rarified place. Chaon’s last novel sent him to the big time. I believe the same thing will happen with The Lola Quartet, and its author, who I like to call The Terrence Malick on independent book publishing.
Mandel’s writing contains countless lines that might get overlooked, and it is not because of fast prose. She wanders, politely, and pauses just as you would in the middle of your day when your mind darts to something pure or radiant. For instance Sasha, a character with whom I would have spent at least a few hundred more pages, is a washout gambler, addicted to risk, and slings hash to make the rent. She is on the bottom of society, someone who you never, ever, would think twice about, and Mandel fuels her with this line, “She moved like a ghost through the caffeinated hours”.
There is the pregnant Anna, the runaway of the bunch, who bolts for reasons that aren’t unusual, but she does it so quickly that we hardly get to know her. On her way out she takes a sack of money from drug dealer she’s shacked up with. Anna moves like a bruised banana, and isn’t at all attractive to this reader.
And then there is Gavin, who pines for Anna, he romanticizes their relationship years after it’s evaporated. Gavin is a wild card, a sad-sack deadbeat liar. He has been handed the Jayson Blair role, as Mandel investigates that ripple on our cultural landscape; reporters who write fiction and call it truth. I liked this, but I was glad when he got fired.
Gavin moves in with his sister Elio, a real estate broker of foreclosed property, another fascinating corner of our civilization. Elio takes a picture of a little girl in a house that is being foreclosed on, and this little kid looks just like Gavin.
Remember that tight little group of kids that you hung out with in high school, and how it seemed the world was yours, and you would be together forever? Gavin ran a jazz quartet, and the music still serenades him. The quartet scattered, and Mandel gives us a slow reveal. Sasha, Anna and people to be named later weave their way through this mysteriously magnetic novel. The rain in Gavin’s apartment at the start of this story leaves a strong aroma that lingers on every page. It reminded me of Lilia from Mandel’s breathtaking debut, Last Night in Montreal (the best introduction to her magic), where a girl disappears, again and again, leaving foot prints in the snow, or a dangling pay phone receiver, which gives me chicken skin just thinking about it. Reading the Lola Quartet is like trying to hold smoke from a bonfire, both thrilling and compelling.