I have some very mixed feelings about Amity Gaige’s new novel Schroder. It tells the story of a father kidnapping his own daughter in the midst of a contentious custody battle, but the plot is far from what’s most noteworthy about this strange epistolary novel.
Erik Schroder is a fascinating, at times bewildering narrator. After immigrating to the U.S. from East Germany, he decides to take on a new American identity, Eric Kennedy, invents a new history for himself, and sets out, over the course of his life, to sever every tie with his past. He only brings it up here in this confession-cum-apology in an attempt to explain what he’s done and who he really is to his ex-wife, Laura.
Justifying his life of deception is the perfect challenge for a divergent imagination like Schroder’s. He’s at his most captivating when explaining how he came to love his own lies and their fruits, his beautiful American family. By turns charming, convincing, challenging, pleading, aggressive, and disturbing, his voice carries an emotional range that almost carries the novel all by itself.
But not quite.
The problem here is the story itself. The kidnapping plot spends too much time finding its way. We know from the outset that Schroder doesn’t get anywhere (he’s writing from jail, before his trial), and he never really seems to believe that he will, either. Yet he goes. Maybe that’s part of the point. For me, anyways, it wasn’t enough.
I want to try to be as clear as I can here about my mixed feelings towards Schroder. There is an awful lot that this book does well. The writing is strong throughout, thoughtful, lyrical, probing, all with the rough, rambling energy of someone scribbling madly on a legal pad.
Here’s how he summarizes his heretofore secret childhood in East Berlin:
What do I remember of my own tender years, long ago? The wheezing of the kettle. My mother and myself deep in parallel silence. The pleasure of a banana. The friendship of a dog. A song about Lenin’s forehead. Flurries of pollen in springtime, steam tents, a cream-colored Trabant that suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns, searchlights, salted caramels in wax paper, the unique humiliation of being dressed in a bow tie. That’s it. So little, and so much.
I love the historical and sensuous texture in this description, the collision of the dystopian “searchlights” and the sentimental “salted caramels.” Even the finality of the last fragment, “So little, and so much,” develops the narrator’s frustrated desire for closure. Schroder always wants to tell his reader that’s it, that’s all there is, let’s not dig into that any more. But then there’s always more.
And that’s part of the problem. Gaige develops a compelling, eccentric narrator with a rich, mysterious backstory, and then denies him, and readers, access to much of it. It makes some sense in the context of the novel’s interest in selective memory and personal reinvention, but it’s a narrative disappointment. As the “kidnapping” unwound with Schroder and his daughter lingering by a pond in Vermont, I found myself waiting to learn more about the mother he left behind in East Berlin, and I still am.
Schroder is a man who takes playing pretend very seriously. He wants to fashion a life after his ideal and responds with scorned wonderment that his ex or anyone else might want to know what’s really going on. There’s something very nearly heroic in his ongoing effort to deceive even himself, but the futility of what he’s trying to do bleeds through the narration again and again. “There’s no such thing as forgetting,” his father tells him once, and it returns later as a refrain.
That doesn’t stop him from trying though. Schroder sidesteps a final reckoning with history, and we never find out what might be at the heart of all his running, though it’s implied that there is something, something possibly very painful. To the very end, he’s trying to hold the world and his past, and by extension the reader, at arm’s length, and he succeeds, making a technically accomplished novel not nearly as moving as it might have been.
Suggested reads: A lot of other reviews compare Schroder to Lolita because of its Humbert Humbert-like unreliable narrator, and while there’s some basis for comparison, it also strikes me as a little unfair to hold anything up for comparison to such a classic work. If you enjoyed Lolita, don’t expect this to live up to that, and if you haven’t read Lolita yet, then I suggest you go read it immediately.