people collide, by Isle McElroy
Asked to choose flight or invisibility as a superpower — that old party game — how many novelists would choose flight, as captains of industry often do? Invisibility is, with minor exceptions, The novelist’s superpower. Hearing conversations. Entering the rooms. Honestly, it’s a little scary.
“People Collide,” Isle McElroy’s second novel, also gives its main characters an intriguing kind of invisibility. They are young married women of 28 who mysteriously switch bodies but not brains, just as the mother and daughter did in the children’s classic and most moviefied “Freaky Friday,” by Mary Rodgers, but there is clearly more transgressive potential.
We meet this couple in Bulgaria, where the wife, Elizabeth, teaches American culture to ungrateful teenagers. She is the achiever and pacesetter of the pair, raised with high expectations by a therapist and a former photographer who now cooks for artists. Elizabeth’s current version of settled domesticity comes as something of a surprise or compromise. “As a girl, she imagined adulthood full of lovers and awards, a kind of life of Simone de Beauvoir, getting and discarding the Sartres and Algrens and Camuses of her generation between writing radical treatises which undermines bourgeois conventions,” an omniscient narrator explains. dry “He meant to be free.”
The husband, Elijah, is more than a lost soul, who really imagined a television screen after his father left his mother, with a tendency to bulimia and at least one episode of infidelity among the minuses that maintained by all married people. He and Elizabeth were both writers, but he had no ambition for anything but leisure; he “invites the ordinary into his life like a vacationing cousin.” Even his nickname, Eli, was named after him, “like a step to a library.”
McElroy throws out similes as a slot machine produces coins. Few feel false or dull: “his feelings slide within him like so much boiling milk.” Those are Elizabeth’s feelings as she listens to Eli describe his childhood trauma on an early date. (They eat “a confusing meal of chopped spinach on top of a pita” prepared by beta-male Eli, thankfully with no milk in sight.) He’s more secure and successful than her in everything way — but an alpha female is still a female , so second-ranked in most of the world’s eyes.
Forged in the Arizona desert in a ceremony attended by a dozen people who happened to be available on Tuesday afternoon, their marriage quickly became a ritual. (“We had settled into a successful sexual routine that guaranteed orgasms, as efficient as a pit crew changing a tire.”) Some couples spice things up with ballroom-dance lessons; this one trades anatomies in an absurdist overnight event that Eli calls The Incident. Perhaps because Elizabeth is eager to get rid of her teaching position, and because Eli is naturally amenable, they accept their changed circumstances with more cheerful curiosity than anxiety. “This is our first time again,” thinks Eli-in-Elizabeth’s body during a graphic but hilariously understated sex scene in a Paris museum bathroom, after what appears to be a 2015 terrorist attack .
“Is this strange to you?” Elizabeth-in-Eli’s body asked.
“Of course it’s strange for me.”
With the help of online tutorials, she learns how to apply makeup, and finds she has a sudden craving for jewelry. (“I’d never wanted anything more than to be what these women were.”) She-as-he has found moving through the world much better and is, quelle surprise, suddenly able to let his defenses down.
McElroy’s debut novel, “The Atmospherians,” told the intelligent but somewhat insiderly and overfreighted story of a wellness cult designed to cleanse people of their toxicity. “People Collide” is a more agile, universal book, whose title refers to the randomness of human connection. Different rom-coms really, a little lost in art. “Circumstances bring the pinball people together,” the narrator declares. “It’s called fate because chance is too scary a word.”
There is perhaps no situation more sinister than that of the in-laws, and McElroy’s unexpected detour into the mind of Elizabeth’s mother, a failed writer herself who inadvertently condemns Eli for abandoning her son, is one of those great novel gifts.
McElroy, who lives in Brooklyn, seems to aspire to flying as in eavesdropping. “People Collide” has some lumpy, weird spots — what body doesn’t? — but its naturalness and ease with the most basic questions of existence make it a big project that packs a punch, foreshadowing bigger projects to come.
people collide, by Isle McElroy | 256 pp. | HarperVia | $28.99