January 19th, 2022
Alternate States of Burning: Place and Personhood in Meghan Lamb’s FAILURE TO THRIVE
By ALEXANDRINE OGUNDIMU
Alexandrine Ogundimu reviews Meghan Lamb's debut novel Failure to Thrive (Apocalypse Party, 2021).
The cover of Meghan Lamb’s Failure to Thrive features a red sign with a white X over it. Black text reads “CAUTION: UNSAFE TO FIRST RESPONDERS DO NOT ENTER OR OCCUPY.” There’s a way to read this as titillation, as if the reader is being welcomed into something forbidden, but there’s another reading won out by the text itself: The lives the reader is about to dive into contain hazards.
The novel opens not with a character, but with the description of a fire, one that has been burning beneath a town near where the main action of the book takes place for fifty years: “There is a whole world pouring from the vent, a world made of heat. Go in the winter, you will see the sharp change in the atmosphere. The snow just stops. The moss stays green. The air feels tropical. A gust of pale fog. A humid sulfur smell.”
Between and within chapters, the fire comes back to the fore, making its presence known, to the point where the effect is not only one of foreboding, but of familiarity. The reader comes to know the fire as surely as they come to know the characters of the novel, and in time there is a similarity between them: Each burns steadily, not waiting to be put out but rather living, as they do, with the particular circumstances of their existence, as inevitable and familiar as the fire burning in the coal mines nearby.
Failure to Thrive is organized into three novellas, all occurring within or around the coal country town adjacent to the ever-burning flame, broken up by interstitial and surreal chapters emphasizing the unreality and sickness of the land occupied by characters who necessarily intersect, though only briefly. This structure allows for close observation of people occupying very different bodies, roles, and consciousnesses, making it more of a survey bound together by the shared metaphor/location than living within a singular mind. It’s an organizing principle seen elsewhere, perhaps most famously by Jonathan Franzen in The Corrections, though Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburgh, OH also comes to mind, and here again there is a commensurate disorganization by dint of movement from one point of view to another. Lamb links these disparate perspectives through omniscient textual moments as we move from one to the other: Consciousness is briefly left, only to be dived back into a few pages later. It’s effective.
None of the characters are wealthy and the milieu of working class and semi-rural life gets a prominent second billing within the novel. It is often cold, characters are often concerned where their next meal will come from, the town is often described in terms that make the economic depression obvious. In the back there are photographs of locations within the novel, lending a kind of authenticity to the setting. It’s viscerally real and paralleled with the people who live within it.
Each section deals with disability or illness and caretaking, which is handled with a kind of raw, uncompromising respect that’s hard not to admire. If Of Mice and Men is the most obvious example of this kind of dynamic, Failure to Thrive is the exact opposite: All emphasis is placed on the disabled characters and their navigation of a world not designed for them, and any sense of wrongness comes not from the fires they must live with but with the world which refuses to make appropriate space for them.
The first section deals with Olivia, an ambiguously developmentally disabled woman (early in life doctors say she fails to thrive, thus the title), who is cared for by her mother Emily and abandoned by her father David. Her daily routine is disrupted when Emily does not get out of bed at her expected time, making it clear to the reader (but not Olivia, not at first) that something is wrong. From there the rest of the novella is told in flashback and forward, a stylistic choice which should feel tired but doesn’t. Lamb constantly moves point of view from Olivia’s, who sees the world very differently, to a more zoomed-out look at her parents’ lives, three perspectives so separate that the prose remains fresh through the movement.
Then there is Helen and her father. Helen cares for the aging and ailing man, blending his food into slurries thickened with powder so that he does not choke. He pines for an ice cream flavor that he has not been able to enjoy in years, Helen’s favorite, described by Lamb with unadorned but effective descriptive language: “She’d get the bittersweet: A perfect blend of plain vanilla mixed with tiny shreds of dark chocolate, the kind her mother used for baking. Every bite was true to its description – sweet and bitter – as she sat and licked and looked down at the green flecks in the tile floor.”
The minutiae of their days occupies this, the shortest section, and the balance Helen must and yet fails to draw between her own needs and her father’s. It’s as if she has been subsumed by him completely, which is treated as equal part tragedy and inevitability by the text.
The fire burns.
Finally there’s the story of Jack, a young, closeted gay man who suffers from a traumatic brain injury following a car accident. In his story there is the most struggle for normalcy and a different kind of pushback against the world he is forced to occupy: He doesn’t fit twice over and thus his effort made to nestle back in with his old high school friend group is doomed to fail. The theme of caretaking is pulled back a bit here, but still present, as Jack has been forced to return to his parents’ home following the accident. Again consciousness is an aesthetic consideration, as the prose reorganizes itself to better fit within the constraints of Jack’s condition:
“He gets confused, then. 1953 is...not today. Already happened. This fire...burned. Before. Today is after. Not today. Today is...He looks up, around him, at the streets he’s pedaled through and walked along so many times. He feels flushed. Embarrassed.”
Besides the melange of themes, it is perhaps the style of the prose which stands out the most within the novel. For the most part Lamb maintains a simplistic, effective minimalism, keeping to matter of fact reportage, but there are also typographical digressions contained within, formatting choices working with onomatopoeia to create an effect that threatens to become whimsical but instead feels more like a winding, luring invitation. These pages are more visual, more immediate than standard block paragraphs, but they come often and work towards a reading experience that is dynamic and changeable, and easy to fall into.
The immediacy of the writing in turn allows for both dips into human consciousness and embodiment of the town. The setting is itself an organism with a body, and its own consciousness finds its way into the text through the prose choices, as the reality of the injury that is the fire manifests through pure sound and typographical choices.
These choices also inform the immersion into the working class, itself suffering from sickness and disability just as some characters are, as reality is treated with blunt force while deeper truths are revealed through sound and shape of the text itself. This is particularly true with Olivia and Emily’s story, where the Marxist idea of alienation is present not only as human separation from the services Emily provides at her job but also in the way the burning coal town, embodied and disabled, is taken away from its original singular purpose.
Recurring story elements of family and caretaking, the return to and bond with parental units appearing in all three main sections, serve to further intensify the atmosphere. The poverty or near-poverty is generational, genetic, inherent to the space and eternal, cyclical, as the characters return home, one after the other, to be cared for by mothers who are intensely and eternally understanding.
The place of women in the novel is central, even in the more highly masculine third section which focuses on Jack and his male friends. Women are placed in the position of caretakers, if not literal mothers then functional ones, and the labor of women, for all the bluntness of prose, is undeniably treated with a surplus of style and sympathy. The depiction of caretaking never threatens to turn sentimental, rather it is the very stuff of the novel, swirled in with the themes of disability and illness.
The cumulative effect of the novel is sparse, quiet, unsettling comfort, where routine, sensibility, the body, and consciousness are given places to settle that are not ideal and yet the fit is perfect. Tone and typography bind together the disparate elements into a cogent, inhabitable world.
And perhaps the reader was already living in it before ever picking up the book.
The bleak, almost post-apocalyptic setting and themes of Failure to Thrive are naturally sympatico with the current state of pandemic horror. At time of writing the COVID-19 pandemic has been ongoing for 19 months here in the United States, counting from March when the first lockdowns hit, a nightmare for the working class and especially for the chronically ill and immunocompromised.
None of this is new. The working class of the United States has been squeezed for decades now, and if the tone of Failure to Thrive fits particularly well as a pandemic read, it’s because COVID-19 is a culmination of the pressures placed upon the working class. The same fire that burns at the heart of Failure to Thrive has been raging throughout the country since the beginning of the pandemic, only burning above ground instead of below.
If anything, that is the warning delivered by the cover, and the novel as a whole: The fire has already burnt everything up, over here. Enter, but be warned, there’s no redemption to be had, only the experience of observing the aftermath, made sublime by the aesthetics of the prose, the horror of living within fire and ashes. It’s a wonderful and terrible place to be.