Novels can be analyzed in all sorts of ways, but a few iron laws of interpretation apply. One: Every novel set in the suburbs must be a commentary on suburbia. No writer can imagine a leafy bedroom community without riffing on conformity, hypocrisy and upper-middle-class entitlement. Two: Every novel that features the arrival of space aliens on Earth must be a commentary about our fear of the other. Those whirling flying discs aren’t just for gaping at — they’re symbols of our dread of what’s just over horizon.
Margaret Wappler’s debut novel, “Neon Green,” is a witty merger of those conceits: Its plot turns on a spaceship that has parked itself in one family’s backyard in Prairie Park, a town just outside Chicago. Her twist is that the spaceship arrives not with lasers blasting and bloblike creatures demanding fealty, but with a yawning silence. A former Times staff writer, Wappler knows nothing unsettles an anxious suburbanite quite like a stranger who won’t explain why he’s hanging around the neighborhood.
In theory, the Allen clan at the center of the story has nothing to worry about. In this fictional universe, the government has known about intelligent life on Jupiter for a decade and found it so benign that a private company is subcontracted to have saucers hang out in selected backyards for a few months. (“Do not attempt to agitate the aliens,” the legalese cautions. “For entertainment purposes only.”) Ernest, the Allen patriarch and environmental do-gooder, suspects a scheme from an untrustworthy corporate-government alliance. “There’s no real interaction with the aliens,” he says. “It’s just another mindless distraction so we don’t have to think about the real problems on Earth.”
But his teenage kids, Gabe and Alison, who applied for the spaceship on the sly, are enchanted by a visitor that’s disinterested in any “E.T.”-style cutesiness; it’s 1994, after all, and the kids have absorbed the grunge era’s contempt for hollow posturing and admiration for stoic distance. All the ship does is occasionally light up and deposit some green sludge in the backyard. What more proof do you need that Jupiter is keeping it real?
Of course, things soon get complicated anyway. Ernest’s wife, Cynthia, has a troubling dizzy spell and, soon after, a Stage 4 cancer diagnosis. The spaceship displays occasional fits of pique that break the household windows and it begins to siphon off electricity from the Allen home, as if to match Cynthia’s depleted energy. In a matter of months, Ernest’s NIMBYism encompasses the entire Milky Way: He’s determined to peg his wife’s illness on the alien guest, gathering soil samples for testing and demanding the family keep a log of the ship’s every gurgle and flicker. Ernest wants family unity, but his paranoia sows only divisiveness. “Take me somewhere, away from here,” Gabe tells the spaceship in a private moment. “Some place cool and maybe just a little bit scary.”
In Robert Heinlein’s 1951 novel “The Puppet Masters,” slimy parasitic space monsters arrived in the Iowa cornfields to deploy their mind-control wiles on the heartland rubes. Wappler isn’t so quick to peg flyover country as ignorant, though. Indeed, she’s alert to the fact that one of suburbia’s chief flaws is hyper alertness: Ernest is neurotically obsessive about every toxin his family consumes and his colleagues on the local Earth Day festival committee are fussbudgets about every particular. That need to have everything in apple-pie order doesn’t reconcile with a spaceship that acts like a toddler when it chooses to act at all, “squealing, puking, dumping, and stealing.”
A closer cousin to “Neon Green” is Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel “White Noise,” partly because of its mysterious-invader-in-the-burbs plot, but also because of its downbeat brand of satire. Wappler plainly enjoys exploring the comic possibilities of, as she puts it, “one of the psychic detritus clusters of the universe, otherwise known as the suburb,” inventing the bureaucratese of the alien-management firm and the family’s observation log, “The Activities of the Unwelcome Visitors From Jupiter.”
But as Cynthia’s health worsens, the overall mood dims and Wappler writes in a dry, plainspoken tenor. “The green light slowly dwindled down in strength until there was barely color, just a faint golden smear and then darkness. The ship lightly rattled and gave off one anemic pop.”
At times these tonal shifts can be queasy-making, and some of the plot mechanics in “Neon Green” aren’t entirely persuasive. You want to see the Allen kids’ emotions to expand beyond adolescent sass, given the weirdness of the aliens’ arrival and the pathos of mom’s illness. And though Ernest’s frustration with the new arrivals is plain, Cynthia’s claims surprisingly little of the stage considering her crisis, and their middle-aged acting-out feels imported from a more familiar domestic novel.
But Wappler has found an entertaining way to make a point that’s often neglected in suburban and alien-invader novels: Being an outsider is a matter of perspective. It’s surely no accident that Wappler gave Ernest’s family the name “Allen,” just one letter off from “alien.” Even sick and skeptical, Cynthia knows that all of us aren’t as different as we might seem, and that we all want to be welcomed. “What if there’s nothing futuristic there beyond the hardware it takes to fly that thing around?” she asks. “They wanted to escape their ordinary lives to look into ours. Are we their fantasy? Do they want to be us?”
Athitakis is a reviewer in Phoenix. “The New Midwest,” his book on contemporary fiction set in the region, will be published in early 2017.
By Margaret Wappler
The Unnamed Press: 246 pp., $16 paper