Body Hopping for a Better View of America

Body Hopping for a Better View of America

SAMUEL JOHNSON’S ETERNAL RETURN
By Martin Riker
241 pp. Coffee House Press. Paper, $16.95.

First, it seems only fair to mention that those looking for a book about the enduring legacy of James Boswell’s great subject should look elsewhere. A mention of that Samuel Johnson does appear toward the end of “Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return,” Martin Riker’s darkly inventive debut novel, as though to reassure the reader that she isn’t insane to wonder if the titular character would turn out to have some connection to the 18th-century lexicographer. He doesn’t, but, given the novel’s precipitous swerves, it would not have been shocking if he had.

Riker is already revered among partisans of the bolder corners of the literary landscape for founding, with his wife, Danielle Dutton, the sublime feminist press Dorothy, a Publishing Project. His novel, like the work they have championed, rejects many of the prevailing conventions of contemporary fiction, most significantly in this case that of having a narrator who is, to put it baldly, confined to one body for the length of the narrative.

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This Samuel Johnson, we soon come to understand, is dead, and his particular brand of purgatory is to have his consciousness shuttled helplessly into the body of the nearest living being at hand whenever the one he is inhabiting expires. The conceit isn’t without precedent: In interviews, Riker has cited Robert Montgomery Bird’s “Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself,” a novel published in 1836 in which the main character migrates between bodies, learning lessons about pre-Civil War America. (A less highbrow recent example is the 2012 young adult novel “Every Day,” by David Levithan.) But Riker brings a unique, cheerfully grotesque sensibility to his crack at this hallucinatory mini-genre, emphasizing the bleakest aspects of his premise as he roves through a swath of the past half-century of American life.

Riker’s lost soul has a mission: to reunite with, or at least check up on, his son, also named Samuel, who was almost 4 when his father was killed. Johnson Sr.’s fate is set in motion, he recounts, by the arrival of a television in Unityville, their tiny hometown in central Pennsylvania. He meets and bonds with his future wife in a shack harboring the town’s one TV, smuggled in by Abram, a renegade Amish neighbor. After his wife dies in childbirth, Johnson becomes increasingly addicted to television, “a man who expected every instant of his life to be compelling, who, when faced with a moment that was not immediately compelling, felt desperate to replace his own life with someone else’s, with the life of some character on television.” He is engaged in this activity when, seemingly at random, a lunatic emerges from the woods, grabs his son and in the ensuing chaos, kills Johnson.

Thus, his eternal roaming has a hint of a Dantesque punishment — he who loves television will be doomed to observe the world without participating, trapped forever in front of a screen with no remote control. As a further insult, the bodies to which Johnson is relegated — a nearly comatose elderly woman, a belligerent, alcoholic businessman, a heroin-addicted young woman with terrible taste in men — are leading lives that don’t get a lot of play on his beloved network shows. And as if these lives weren’t grim enough, Johnson eventually discovers the ability (through a mechanism I won’t give away here) to control the bodies he inhabits for short periods of time, a power that almost inevitably ends in his vessels’ violent deaths.

At times, especially in the depths of these nightmarish sequences, I admired Riker’s audacity more than I enjoyed following his logic to its gruesome endpoints. The book is ingenious, but unsparing in its vision of a country populated almost entirely by selfish people in thrall to their vices and, more often than not, well on their way to being killed in automobile accidents. Maybe what I’m saying is that the truth hurts.

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