Saturday, September 10, 2011

Ordinary Horror in Don't Come Back from the Moon

I have a theory about horror: bizarre things done in a bizarre way aren’t horrific because they are too strange to be relatable, and ordinary things done in an ordinary way aren’t horrific because they’re, well, ordinary. Real horror comes when you combine the extremes. Bizarre things done as if they’re ordinary. Ordinary things done in bizarre ways.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course (there are to any rule), but I think it holds up pretty well. I recently encountered an excellent illustration of my theory in a source where I was not expecting to find it: Dean Bakopoulos’s novel-in-stories Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon.

The premise sounds almost whimsical. In a depressed suburb of Detroit, Maple Rock, fathers tell their families they are going to the moon, and then disappear soon afterward. For these men, though, their trip to the moon is not some grand adventure. In fact, the mystery of their disappearance remains unsolved throughout much of the book; Bakopoulos’s slow, gradual, almost methodical exploration of the lives of the families the absent fathers left behind is as horrific as it is commonplace.

Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon focuses on Michael, Nick, and Tom, three young men forced into becoming men of the house long before they are mature enough to accept that responsibility. Indeed, as Bakopoulos narrates their misadventures, it becomes hard to envision them ever truly growing up.

For a while, I thought Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon was going to be “just another” story about boys becoming men despite the failures of their parents and communities. But there’s much more to it than that.

(If you’ve stumbled upon this post without reading the book first, I’m posting a SPOILER WARNING here.)

As Bakopoulos’s novel progressed, I realized that it was going to end where it began, with a generation of fathers (the sons of the fathers who vanished in the first story) also disappearing. And all of the pedestrian, unremarkable events in between (teenagers drinking, a priest losing his vocation, falling in love, working at a suburban mall) are the developments that will lead those boys to consider abandoning their own wives and children as they grow older.

In Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon’s eponymous beginning story, the fathers’ bizarre disappearance seems mysterious and unexplainable. By the time you reach the final story, “Please Don’t Come Back from the Moon (Reprise),” the phenomenon of absent fathers feels not merely ordinary, but inescapable. That graceful movement from bizarre otherness to ordinary recognition makes this one of the more disquieting books I have read. 

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