I wonder what I looked like on the bus as I was reading Trevor Cole's sophomore novel, The Fearsome Particles (published by McClelland & Stewart)? It's the story of a family on the verge of collapse. At first, it seems that the problem is an immediate crisis: the return of a son broken by undisclosed events in Afghanistan. Yet, as the book goes on, it becomes clear that this is a family suffering from the erosion of life, not from its lightning strikes. It's a story that is wickedly funny and searingly painful, as Cole alternates between the two extremes with all the relentlessness of life itself.
Gerald — patriarch, COO and our entry point into the Woodlore family — works at Spent Materials, Inc, a company that makes screens and filters, and just happens to be on the verge of market disaster. His wife, Vicki, is a stager — not a fluffer — for high-end real estate. She imagines the lives of the people in the house and decorates accordingly, a trick that has made her one of the best. And then there is Kyle. Kyle who seemed to have a promising science career ahead of him, until he dropped out of school and headed for Afghanistan. His early return home, though a relief to his parents, is uneasy: he is not the same boy who left. Now, Kyle just hides in his room, seemingly doing nothing and connecting to no one.
Cole tells the story by moving between the three characters' points of view, forcing the reader to find sympathy for each of the family member's incongruous beliefs. What all three characters share is their desire to exert control over their worlds, to see what they want to see. Each finds the others' attempts deluded, infuriating.
She had worked this out, that she could no longer rely on herself to respond to time in a rational, foresighted way but needed to fool herself to the tune of nearly half an hour. And the fact that she could rise, breakfast, shower, dress, and avoid looking at his clock so as to enter the day according to a deliberate misconception, and yet could not apply this same resourcefulness to functioning in the actual present, was, frankly, incomprehensible to Gerald, and deeply worrisome, if he allowed himself to think about it.
This is a family that is falling apart not because of the lies they tell each other, but because the lies they are telling themselves are so drastically different. They are living in three completely separate worlds, worlds with little more than superficial similarities. It is one of the most real stories of how well-meaning families go wrong that I have ever read. From Gerald's guilt about Kyle ("Gerald knew with the faith of the religious that it was no one's fault but his own") to Vicki's inability to furnish the final room in her latest project to Kyle's nihilism, the Woodlores are each utterly alone with their grief.
"The world moves randomly, the survivors are the ones who go along," says Kyle, quoting the soldier he admired when he was in Asia. It's a feeling everyone has felt in moments of disappointment, disillusionment, despair. Through his characters, Cole questions the validity of the idea, of whether a family can really be alive inside a home with all the windows sealed shut. Where you can't really see the world. Or where you just go along with it. He doesn't offer any answers, but it's the questioning itself, maybe, that makes us human. It's nice to know that we're not alone in our miseries, especially when we can laugh about them along the way.