The Short Version: A couple sets out on an annual roadtrip from Chicago to Virginia. But Maggie, recently mugged at gunpoint, is a shadow of her former self and Mark is having trouble coping with the changes in his wife. As storms start to lash their trip and night begins to fall, tensions rise – but when they’re forced to stop at an out-of-the-way hotel, an unexpected reversal will define their future.
The Review: What a taut little novel this is. Clocking in just under 200 pages, it is (as many of the jacket blurbs also encourage) the sort of book that almost demands to be read in a single sitting. The winding spring of tension is never stopped, under those circumstances, and you cannot help but edge closer to the lip of your chair, ignoring the clock, as the novel builds to its climax.
I was reminded while reading of two plays, one I’ve seen and one I’ve read: Blood Play by the Debate Society and The Cryptogram by David Mamet. Both plays engage in a particular Americans-doing-Pinter layering of tense banalities and increasingly inexplicable wracking of nerves – a sort of “I don’t know why this is unsettling me but it sure as shit is.” But where Blood Play continues to build that tension into an ultimately surreal/fantastical/terrifying conclusion (of sorts – theater nerds, we can discuss that play’s efficacy elsewhere), The Cryptogram releases us back into reality. So too does Listen to Me. Even as the ending approached, I believed wholeheartedly that we were headed down some truly terrifying rabbit hole that might not kill our heroes but would certainly leave them forever shaken and changed and leave their world a little spookier than it had been 24 hours previously. But while that may’ve been the ending I was excited for, the ending I got was absolutely the right one for the novel – because it lays bare the horrible nature of humanity while also celebrating our inherent ability to overcome and push forward and join with others. It was the far more real ending.
But enough about the ending, which I do not intend to spoil further under any circumstances. Let’s warp back to the beginning, where Pittard introduces Mark and Maggie as they’re attempting to get underway on their vacation. Their ordinary domestic drama is loaded with external authorial significances: the dog is unwilling to do his business for Mark and prefers Maggie to be his companion… Mark not only didn’t take out the recycling, he threw away a keepsake champagne bottle from their last anniversary… a small argument in front of their apartment, we find out only after it has concluded, was witnessed by several people in a coffee shop right there… All of these little signs, when combined with Pittard’s narrative voice (dry, a little droll, a little odd, very present), have us nervous from the start. I think that really grabbed me, pulled me under, had me completely committed and totally wigged was, in chapter two, a small blip where the author (in a way that directly connects Lemony Snicket and Alfred Hitchcock) points out the deepest point of Lake Michigan – a pretty simple scientific fact that, because of its interjection into the story, suddenly becomes the most terrifying freaking thing you could know. Pittard does this a few more times with the distance from the sun, a fact about the Earth’s core… and it would be silly if it wasn’t so damn spooky.
The road trip, thus fraught with signs and portents, gives way to some internal character development. It turns out Maggie had been recovering from her mugging rather nicely – seeing a therapist, coming to terms with it, being confident in the world again – until a co-ed was killed near their house. The cops, in a moment of only all too realistic buffoonery, showed up to see if Maggie thought the perp was the same one who’d attacked her and, in showing her these graphic photos and explaining the gory details, send her way back down the spiral. And as she’s become obsessed with the horrible things that are happening in the world (murders, robberies, natural disasters), Mark is at his wit’s end trying to help her.
He’s also having a bit of a midlife crisis regarding the attractive former research assistant who has been flirting with him via email. Maggie maybe suspects but does not know anything’s going on, just as Mark suspects but does not truly know how deep Maggie’s mental wounds go. And so we have a couple wracked with instability and doubt – and Pittard, in the midst of pulling the pair forward towards whatever inevitable reckoning in the world they’re due for, takes the time to explore the kinds of questions that seem like their own kind of inevitable in most marriages that’ve lasted nigh on ten years: is this going well? Is this person still the person I want to spend the rest of my life with? How have they changed? How have I changed? How have we changed each other? It doesn’t always have to be Gone Girl, with the dramatic explosion between a married couple – Pittard shows that it’s far more interesting and far more complex in the real world, and she does it with skill and humor and pathos.
The only other thing I’ll say, a note on plot, is that as the trip goes on and as the weather grows increasingly bad, Pittard manages to deliver not just a gripping thriller but also a sneaky examination of urban privilege that I didn’t ever see coming. I’m quick to joke about the hill people of the Confederate South, and perhaps I shouldn’t be, but Pittard goes one step further by revealing in a single stroke the best and worst of our shared humanity. The result is both tragic and uplifting at the same time and, while I’m still curious to see what kind of shocks Pittard could deliver if she put her mind to pure thriller/horror fiction, it’s the perfect ending for this book – a reminder of what it means to be married, to be alive, to be human.
Rating: 5 out of 5. This one grabs you from the start and does not want to let you go. I do, indeed, recommend carving out the time to just read it in a single go – perhaps on a hot night, during a storm, maybe even with the power out. I myself read it on an unbearably humid night during a recent heat wave and as the characters dragged themselves through an equally hot and humid and rainy night’s drive, I felt all the more frightened by my surroundings… and my own humanity. But Pittard is out to do more than frighten, here, and she delivers a tale (and ending) that are exactly right, even if they aren’t what you expect. Excellent summer reading.