Workshop questions. Anyone who has ever participated in a college-level writing workshop knows what they are. Hearing them will likely send shivers down your spine. What is this piece’s emotional center? What is the scene and what is the story? What is my—no, what is the reader’s incentive to care about this piece?
What are the politics of this work?
That last one. Substitute ethics for politics and the same dry-heave of the soul occurs. It’s not that good writing doesn’t proffer ethical questions or hairy situations; it’s that it doesn’t have to; good writing can survive without the Big Questions. And there’s too often a willingness to ham-handedly inject these issues where they needn’t be. (On the flip side, there’s too often a willingness—especially on college campuses—to take ethics out of the equation altogether, to write a story about a guy twiddling his thumbs at a bus stop, because, well, why not?)
There are works, however, that can hinge on broad questions of ethics or politics without necessarily being preachy. Works that can make you feel, at least for a moment, ambivalent about your own pillars; works that can undermine societal standards, codes of conduct, etc. without baldly trying to undermine those standards and codes. It takes deftness, some skills at the literary sleight-of-hand.
Lamb, at times, succeeds at this. Bonnie Nadzam’s powerful debut novel tells the story of David Lamb, a just-past-middle-aged man who befriends an eleven-year-old girl named Tommie. Their relationship, however, is ethically murky.
Lamb’s intentions, though they at first seem mild, over time become…creepy. He starts talking about a life the two could live together, far from Chicago, out there, in the West, with horses and simple things and familiarity and nightgowns. Lamb buys Tommie things. He takes her to a restaurant. He strokes her hair and touches her skin.
Soon, he takes her out to Colorado.
It’ s unclear what Tommie is to Lamb. Is she a project? He seems to long for the American frontier—for a simpler, blue collar existence, one marked by hard work, hearty meals cooked on an open fire, and isolation. In Tommie, he sees someone with whom he could share this dream. He tries to communicate this to her—giving her an Emile-style crash course in nature education.
He is a luscious blowhard, constantly extolling the virtues of whatever he is doing at that moment, soaking in the fact that —the obviously obvious fact that —Tommie is eleven and really has no reason not to believe Lamb, has no recourse but to nod when he verbally jerks off about how he’s cooking his breakfast over a fire or how he’s packing a bag with more than what’s needed or how he knows that boys’ shoes are made sturdier than girls’. At those times, he’s annoying more than dangerous.
So, at times Lamb seems to want Tommie for a daughter or a son or a niece.
But then he kisses Tommie on the mouth and they start sleeping in the same bed and, well, this is where ethical problems become legal problems, where inappropriate becomes unconscionable, and now the stakes are raised; it seems clear that Nadzam, by virtue of introducing a brazenly pedophiliac situation, is challenging the reader to, well—I’m not sure what she’s challenging the reader to do. Go against pedophilia?
And maybe that’s where the Lamb comes up short; taking a stand against pedophilia is not taking a stand at all. So is she challenging us to accept the blatant impropriety? Take this passage from p. 197:
Lamb was just a man in the world. He’d fed her well and told her stories and loved her up all the way through the dim-lit outskirts of Rockford, Iowa City, Omaha; across the national grasslands, stiff and pale in the increasing cold; over the continental divide as the sky shed itself in falling snow, and up to where there were no trees, no birds, no life but the slow force of rock rising up from a thin and frozen crust of ground. Say this was all in hopes of glimpsing something beautiful. And is there anything wrong with that?
And, of course, the unnecessary answer to that closing rhetorical is yes, there is something wrong with that. It seems Nadzam, however, wants us to at least consider the idea that the relationship between Tommie and Lamb is worth considering; maybe we don’t have to accept it—but could we possibly deem it acceptable, on some cosmic level?
Nadzam deserves credit for this. (In addition to, as the above excerpt displays, a propensity for sharp, cracking prose.) It’s not easy to present such an ethical quandary in fiction without seeming ham-handed; where Nadzam falls short is elsewhere. Namely, character development.
But Lamb has a very simple problem: Nadzam presents characters making terrible, no good, awful decisions almost constantly. From Lamb’s decision to basically kidnap Tommie to Tommie’s decision to let this man touch her all over her body to Linnie—a character worth mentioning, I guess, because she was Lamb’s one-dimensional extra-marital affair—who decides to flee responsibility and go out to Colorado to give things one more chance with Lamb, it’s a cavalcade of baffling choices. Choices that, were we to know more about the characters, might seem to make some sense.
Forgive the workshop cliché, but Nadzam doesn’t quite earn our trust, our willingness to accept that these characters would make decisions against their own self-interest; we don’t know if it’s heart vs. brain vs. soul; we don’t know anything. We just see undesirable means toward unclear ends.