As literary editor at Esquire, which won a 2004 National Magazine Award for its fiction, Adrienne Miller has passed her eyes -- and her red pen -- over the work of some talented, some successful, and probably some downright crappy fiction aspirants. Perhaps hers is the kind of job that creates pent-up frustration -- an impatience to do it bigger, better, wilder. That would explain Miller's ambitious debut novel, "The Coast of Akron," which overflows with zinging sentences, fresh imagery, unexpected turns of phrase, and more eccentricities than the looney-tunes family it chronicles.
Miller has gussied up her pallid Akron, Ohio, setting with a lot of surrealist detail. There's a 65-room faux-Tudor Revival mansion called "On Ne Peut Pas Vivre Seul" ("One Cannot Live Alone"). There's a pet emu named Anita and a pet pig named Arabella; Miller's human characters have monikers like Preston Lympany and Jenny Meatyard. The book's climactic scene features a mime, a harpist, a fire-eater, a peacock feast and a human-size farkle board. References to objects as earthbound as a BlackBerry or "South Park" provide jarring reminders that this book is supposed to take place in the real world.
"The Coast of Akron" is ostensibly about wifty magazine ad saleswoman Merit Haven Ash, loving but unfaithful wife to obsessive-compulsive Wyatt, daughter to famous self-portraitist Lowell Haven and his alcoholic ex-wife Jenny, and stepdaughter to Fergus, Jenny's former gay best friend and Lowell's current domestic partner. The story of Merit's secret-studded and thoroughly loco family is woven with three narrative threads. There's Merit's saddish affair with a stoner assistant she calls "the Tooting Subordinate." Then there are Jenny's diaries from the '70s, which chronicle her early artistic ambitions, her needy and troubled friendship with Fergus, and her first encounters with narcissistic fop Lowell. Finally, and most oppressively depressing, is Fergus' first-person narration of events leading up to a party at which he's planning to air all the family's musty secrets.
Miller's story doesn't feel like anything else. Its whimsical layers on top of its dismal realities are best evoked by whiny, delusional Fergus, who says, "You want to know how I dealt with my life? By creating my own little fantasy. That's what you've got to do if you live in Akron, Ohio, and you really do consider yourself the dauphin."
Miller has an eye for visual art and an ear for language, and she crisply wraps words around hues, textures and sounds. Jenny writes of someone she meets in London: "The color of his face makes me think of the word squeal," while Fergus is described succinctly as "a man with dire sinus issues." This is a first novel with a distinctive style. The thrill of its over-the-top nature is amplified by the fact that so many recent first novels have tended to fall within predictable narrative parameters: I grew up in a perfect suburb that actually held many gothic secrets! I came to New York and did too many drugs! I am a desperate housewife, ambivalent about my family! I am returning to the gothic suburbs of my childhood to raise the family about which I am ambivalent, after my drug-addled youth in New York!
"The Coast of Akron" is very, very different. Yet, sometimes Miller oversteps, and despite her efforts to truss up her characters with precise and evocative sentences, she allows them to slip and ooze all over the place. The book's many pages don't shed all that much light on the motivations or desires of any of the family members, save Merit's patient husband, Wyatt, and Fergus.
This is forgivable, though, because buried beneath the spun-sugar absurdity of "The Coast of Akron" is a terrifically compelling and original tale about art, gender, ownership and identity. All of Miller's characters want to be each other. Not be like each other, but be each other. Miller is interested in what's inside and what's outside, and stuffs the novel with mannequins, hot-air-filled blimps, Barbie dolls whose faces have been erased with acetone, and hollow plastic mansions meant for fish aquariums.
She writes a mean sentence, deftly deploys some searing imagery, and tackles everything from infidelity to self-abnegation to artistic inspiration. She seems eager to get it all out at once. It's a messy project that could have been a little tighter. But that's OK. It's Miller's first novel, and it's an exciting one.