Delusion takes many forms in Amity Gaige’s unusual new novel, “Schroder,” a book about identity and the vagaries of love.
Or, as its protagonist – the eponymous Schroder – puts it: “There is one thing that really deranges us, and that is the disappearance of love.”
Yes, love deserts Schroder here – but, because he deserves it and because Gaige can be quite funny, we smile while regretting Schroder’s choices, and grow quite fond of the complex, immature and duplicitous young man that is Schroder.
As literary creations go, he is something of a gift – a guilty pleasure as we watch him, at the age of 14, apply for summer camp in the name of Eric Kennedy rather than his real name, Erik Schroder. (The year was 1984. “There were no technologies for omniscience,” he explains.)
But Gaige does not treat his deceit lightly. Instead, she treads the dual paths within all of us, favoring Schroder’s devious side – first when it comes to his boyish desperation to fit in, and for two decades more as he maintains the ruse through high school, college and several years of marriage.
His story, a whopper, is simply that he was raised “in a (completely fictional) town on Cape Cod he called Twelve Hills, “a stone’s throw from Hyannis Port,” a treasured only child, endowed with a last name that could “only be uttered in rapture.”
In truth, Schroder is an immigrant, a boy born Erik Schroder in East Germany and brought to America by his father, Otto, who cared for his son but was not involved enough in his life to learn of his fabrications.
Like every lie hung on to, Schroder’s only grows. By the time we meet him, he is in his 30s and composing an Apologia pro Vita Sua to his wife, the beautiful Laura, mother to their child, the enchanting Meadow.
“Oh Laura,” he writes. “If I had lived my life as one man, one consolidated man, would I have been able to see what was coming? Would I have guessed that it was all bound to fail, and that, within five years, we would separate? Would I have been able to prevent it – I mean that night when … you asked me to get out? You’d had it with me. You’d felt for years … like you were living in a house with tilted floors. We’d gone wrong.”
Gaige is fascinating here, posing such questions as, can something genuine thrive in a garden of deceit? And, if nature or nurture makes us who we are, what about artifice? But she goes further, giving us fine vignettes, first of Schroder’s father Otto (many of his wonderful German sayings included), then of a woman named April (an aging flower child grown somewhat wise). She also rewards us with splendid descriptions of East and West Germany, Boston, Albany and parts of Vermont while introducing us to Schroder’s obsession with silence, something he is studying and writing about when he isn’t committing crimes.
For crimes he does commit here, quite beyond the guise of a Kennedy: Frustrated by his separation from Laura, and subsequent short visits with their daughter Meadow, he kidnaps Meadow, taking the 6-year-old out of state, an odyssey of love that doesn’t augur well. Not at all.
But it is the time-honored father-daughter bond that sustains Gaige’s multifaceted narrative here. Schroder and Meadow share unforgettable “vacation” moments, eating and sleeping what and when they please while taking back roads, Meadow oblivious to the fact that their romp away from home is, among multiple other things, almost certain to put her father behind bars.
Meadow (at least to one who has daughters not to mention granddaughters) doesn’t quite ring true here. Laura, because we never meet her in person, doesn’t either. But Laura has one of the best lines in the book, according to Schroder who includes it in his Apologia: “I miss who I thought you were.”
These are words apparently uttered before Laura had an inkling that her husband was not who he said he was. They are an example of how Gaige brings every facet of the book to bear on her central themes – identity and love, particularly the pull of love between a father and daughter.
Her plot may seem improbable but, as she explains in an interview included in the book, it was “inspired” by the true tale of the German con man who passed himself off as Clark Rockefeller, and after a separation from his wife, kidnapped their daughter.
“This con man was by many accounts a loving father,” Gaige says in the interview, “and he called the days with his daughter ‘the best days’ of his life. The story echoed what I was already wondering about parenthood: can a deeply flawed person be a good (or good enough) parent? What does it take? How would we define that?”
Gaige defines that well here – and, if Schroder’s further preoccupation, the study of silence, seems tacked on, it is nonetheless interesting, appearing mainly in footnotes:
“… We’ve heard that talk is silver, but silence is golden. As someone who is widely considered talkative – too talkative – the suggestion is provocative to me: Do I say less than a silent person? Is silence truth, in itself? That is, is silence the sole expression of the incommensurability of the truth with our rudimentary powers to speak it?”
At one point, Schroder dwells on “a connection between dramatic pauses and marital pauses,” concluding amusingly with the thought that “anyone interested in Pinterian pauses could save the cost of a (theater) ticket and spend an evening witnessing someone’s disintegrating marriage.”
Later, he accepts the “essential dilettantism” of his study of silence, returning to terra firma and the reality of a life first set off kilter on the day, as a 14-year-old, he signed his name “Eric Kennedy” on a camp application.
In all, we are glad to be along for the ride. And when someone asks Schroder, near the novel’s end, “Do you miss it? I mean, your made-up life?” – we can assume that, in large part, he does.
We can also confess, now we know Schroder so well, that we do too.
By Amity Gaige
281 pages, $21.99
Karen Brady is a retired News columnist.