The tragic and the trivial intertwine in "Chatter," Perrin Ireland's offbeat tale of marriage, miscommunication, and assorted discontents. Sarah and Michael, married 18 years, live near Boston with their lively beagle, Random. It is the second marriage for both. Michael is a successful businessman. Sarah writes novels.
It should be a stable, comfortable life, yet Sarah has a bad case of the jitters. News of terrorism threats abound. Her best friend has cancer. Michael travels constantly on business and keeps to himself; she figures he's having an affair. Sarah hates flying. She wants to do good, but can't quite find the right cause. She knows her cholesterol numbers for the past six years. She aspires to read at least 10 poems a day, in order "to stay smart." Only in the company of a man she befriends on Amtrak does she find respite.
When a chapter from Michael's earlier life reopens, Sarah's anxieties really take off. Years ago, it seems, during a stint in the Peace Corps, Michael became involved with Magdalena, the beautiful, rebellious daughter of a rancher. Now, their offspring, Camila, has tracked Michael down on the Internet and found her way to Boston. Revelations emerge about Michael's Peace Corps days, in particular the mysterious death of a close friend.
Yet "Chatter" is no weighty drama about the past and its dark secrets; its terrain is the jaded, frenetic feel of everyday life, post-9/11. For all the troubles the characters face, the novel's touch is light, the dialogue funny. (" 'How's your novel coming?' 'I've cleaned out three closets.' ") The fascination lies less in the plot details than in the "chatter" that follows the characters wherever they go.
Ireland plays up the background noise usually left out of novels: the snatches of news and idle talk to which we become habituated. Chatter from TV screens, glossy magazine covers, ads, cellphones, answering machines, and stray conversations takes in everything from Al Qaeda videos to Jennifer Lopez's love life. Dialogue among family and friends has its own nonsensical quality. (" 'I don't know when I've felt so helpless,' " Sarah says, to which Michael replies, " 'Partly sunny tomorrow.' ") Ireland shows us a world filled with sophisticated communication tools where no one communicates.
Sarah sometimes thinks that the "things she wanted to say she couldn't." The novel hints at deeper currents in the characters' lives: Michael's lost idealism; Sarah's first love, killed in Vietnam. The vagueness seems to be the point. Memories and the emotions they stir arise, only to drift off into nothing. Amid a blitz of stimuli, the characters disengage from their surroundings and from each other. Camila's arrival, however, shakes things up.
The choppy scenes and dead-end conversations are comic in a grim sort of way; we smile and wince at the same time. Still, the novel is more than merely clever. Ireland treats her characters with tenderness, portraying how they experience the world, and ultimately holding out a note of hope. She wrings meaning from the slightest of gestures, as when Sarah, barefoot, lingers on a warm spot on the floor where Random had taken a nap. Sarah wins our sympathy, as an everywoman seeking, against the odds, a place of safety and comfort.
By Perrin Ireland
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 245 pp., $23.95
Judith Maas is a freelance writer/editor.