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When the universe curses you back: A razor-sharp novel about a road trip to acceptance

Author Vanessa Veselka.
Author Vanessa Veselka.
(Marne Lucas)

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“Can you imagine if they reenacted women’s history?” a character named Cheyenne wonders in Vanessa Veselka’s second novel, “The Great Offshore Grounds.” “Hundreds of teenagers in bonnets dying in childbirth?” Cheyenne is in Boston, visiting the Freedom Trail with her sister Livy. History, or its residue, is everywhere in this narrative.

On the one hand, there is the encrusted heritage of the Northeast; on the other, the tangled lines of family, which have brought the sisters from Seattle in search of someone their semi-estranged father has said might be their mother. When it turns out she isn’t, the tenuous thread of their connection is severed — another of history’s ruptures. The whole journey east is really an elaborate MacGuffin, less about the search for a birth mother than it is about the sisters’ damaged dynamic. On their way back home, after all, Livy leaves Cheyenne by the side of the road.

Veselka is well-schooled in disruption. Her 2011 debut, “Zazen,” tracks the upheaval of a single character, a paleontologist who works at a diner. Unlike that novel, this one is densely plotted, interweaving overlapping story lines and points-of-view. In addition to Cheyenne and Livy, we encounter Kirsten — the hippie-ish mother who raised them — as well as their brother Essex, who is not their biological sibling but rather a street kid the family has taken in. All are eager for direction, but all are running in place.

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The result is a deeply moving picaresque in which Veselka examines conditionality as a state of being. Placing her characters at the mercy of events, she evokes the feeling of a floating world, pushing back against the forward movement of the novel in favor of something more circular. The tension this creates is provocative but familiar. There are no epiphanies here, only the small (and sometimes not so small) upheavals Veselka’s characters must navigate. “There’s not going to be a fresh start,” Cheyenne laments, “not even a small one.” Still, even as hope yields piece by piece to disappointment, it never fully evaporates.

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Veselka establishes this dynamic from the outset, opening “The Great Offshore Grounds” with the marriage of Cheyenne and Livy’s father, Cyril, to a woman younger than they are. “[E]verything feels new,” he says, telling his daughters the bride is pregnant. “It feels like this is my real first child.” That gut-punch of a scene establishes the seesawing action of the novel, built out of situations that appear at first off-kilter, even whimsical, before revealing darker strands of abandonment and risk.

Cyril’s wedding, an outdoor affair on Puget Sound, offers one such moment. A storm forces the couple and their guests to take refuge in a cramped and crowded lighthouse, where vows are shared as thunder crashes outside and birds slam into the windows with explosive force. “There was a huge crack,” she writes, “as lightning struck something on another part of the island. People looked around, suddenly aware that there was a radio tower in the field a hundred yards away from them. … A flash lit the sky just as another bird hit the window near the bride.”

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"The Great Offshore Grounds" by Vanessa Veselka.
(Knopf)

It’s a terrific set piece, funny but also tragic, and it sets “The Greater Offshore Grounds” on its trajectory. Cyril has given his daughters the name of the woman they’ll pursue in Boston, one of two (the other is Kirsten) with whom he used to be involved. Both, so the story goes, became pregnant; Kirsten agreed to care for the kids while the other woman became a Buddhist nun. Thirty-three years later, Cheyenne and Livy are looking for closure. But closure is a word from a different lexicon. Like their mother and their brother, or even (in a sense) their father, they are adrift in a world that was not made for them, with limited practical or emotional skills.

Veselka traces these arcs with empathy and an earthy sense of humor but also with a ruthless eye. She is a remarkable writer, able to break through the surfaces of her narrative to reveal the animal chaos underneath. When, in the middle of the book, Cheyenne finally finds Justine, the missing mother, she discovers nothing of what she thought she wanted: no warmth, regret, or even longing — not even the merest breath of love.

“Ask yourself,” Justine presses Cheyenne, “who does it really comfort to show up unasked?” The question is an assault, not even a subtle one, and it reiterates and expands on Cyril’s comment about his coming child. “Cheyenne,” Veselka writes, “had been so sure. If she got all the way here, if she showed no hesitation, if her commitment was absolute, that there would be a justice at its end to wash away all the years of poor judgment and make right all false starts. There should be a … prize for desire. But there wasn’t.”

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And yet the strength of the novel, or one of them, is that Cheyenne already understands this, just as she knows she has no choice but to persevere. She may be lost, but she is a survivor — as is Livy, working fishing boats in Alaska, and Essex, enlisted in the Marine Corps. Even Kirsten, struggling with financial and health crises she tries to hide from her family, reacts to her situation not with resignation but with something approaching a minor grace.

During her youth, Kirsten had told a friend, “It’s like I’m talking to the Universe and she’s talking back.” Now, her view is modified: “I still believe the Universe is talking to me but I no longer like what it’s saying.” In that arc, the pattern of her life is revealed. What she’s saying is that nothing is promised, that youth, optimism, fades. “Ship’s log,” Veselka writes at the end of the novel, describing Livy’s experience on a tall ship: “Nothing is meant to be.”

No one comes out of this book with much more than they had when it began. “Think of all the times you’ve been naked,” Cheyenne reflects. “You have a dollar. You have a magic rock. You have something someone said to you that you hold precious, a vague idea, a plan, nothing, you have nothing. Now think of all the times you’ve been wrong. You end up with a broken heart or chlamydia, a wristband and disposable slippers, you’re pregnant, you’re not.”

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In its way, that merciless truth of the universe represents a sort of mercy, and it makes “The Great Offshore Grounds” a saga of acceptance, which is to say a book of life. I don’t want to give away too much because one of its abiding pleasures is discovery. Ultimately, the characters are faced with a stark choice: between freedom and history. Both solutions are incomplete — conditional — and neither promises anything. But how could it be otherwise?

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“There’s no shame in freedom,” Veselka writes of Cheyenne.She had a working car, a few weeks of dental, and, prior to eviction, a place for a month or two with dishes and clean clothes. More than she’d had of her own for a long time.” That’s more than many have been blessed with, and she is more aware of it than most.

Ulin is a former book editor and book critic for The Times.

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The Great Offshore Grounds
Vanessa Veselka
Alfred A. Knopf: 448 pages, $27.95


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