Monkey on a Wire: a book review of 72 Raisins by Nikki Nash
72 Raisins tells the story of Scott Mullan, a Los Angeles-based comedy writer for The Late Enough Show, whose star is the diminutive Dylan Flynn. Scott is fifty and married to Rebecca. They have two children, both of whom are due to start college and are busy choosing – along with Rebecca – where to go. Scott is hoping for promotion to head writer on the show, but his ambitions and his marriage are thrown into turmoil when his agent asks him to read the typescript of a book called Seven Mythic Doorways to Freedom by Ben Doss, with a view to editing it, a suggestion that Scott fears indicates he will never get the job he covets.
72 Raisins opens with the redolent image of two nervous cops pointing their guns at the back of a suspect. The suspect is Scott and he has done nothing wrong, yet by the time the story gets around it doesn’t much matter, as he is branded as a ‘perv’ anyway. Thus, as the subtitle to 72 Raisins succinctly puts it, this is ‘a novel about fame, delusion and indecent exposure’. More significantly, it is about story, myth and faith.
The stories we tell ourselves and perhaps hold sacred as individuals and as a society help us make sense of our experience and enable us to steer a course through life. Stories become myths when they solidify as foundational narratives about how and why we became what we are, and often invoke divine sanction and guidance. When, as happens from time to time, circumstances force us to reexamine, revise, replace or discard our myths, it can be a painful and confusing process – so much so that many of us avoid honest encounters with new realities and instead use our myths for refuge and exclusion rather than illumination and connection.
Few of us these days learn our myths from an impressively bearded sage sitting around the old camp fire. Instead, it is television and cinema and social media that tell us who we are and what we may become. The difference with social media and a lot of television is that stories can be diffused with such rapidity and scant regard for authenticity and authorship that they become truths whether or not they are true.
Any novel that references the immortal Dick Van Dyke Show is likely to get my vote. In 72 Raisins the show is perhaps a foundational narrative for Scott and Rebecca’s marriage – a righteous blend of harmoniously sexy family life in an affluent suburb with a fun and rewarding career (for the husband, at least). In a flashback to their first meeting, Scott tells Rebecca:
I always wanted to be Rob Petrie. From The Dick Van Dyke Show. I want to be a head writer. I’m doing stand-up because I’m good at it and it helps me refine the words, but deep down – I want to be Rob Petrie.
Whereupon Rebecca impersonates Mary Tyler Moore and their relationship is sealed. (Incidentally, an early episode of The Dick Van Dyke Show contains a memorable entrance by the lovely Mary in a tailored outfit with pillbox hat typical of the First Lady, Jackie Kennedy. The live audience indulges in a collective swoon of rapture. The myth of Camelot has already taken hold.)
Seven Mythic Doorways to Freedom claims some impressive reviews from Rollo May, Robert Bly, the New York Times Book Review and Robert Graves. It is ostensibly a book about myth and how myth can be used to enlighten a life via some bizarre applications that Scott decides to follow, among which are attempting to see the messiah in the people he encounters, and rocking back and forth as a form of meditative exercise. These things get Scott thinking:
Scott … thought about his father. How things could have been different. His father had never handed him a knife and said, ‘You must slay me first.’ He’d handed him a hammer and said, ‘Don’t fuck this up,’ but Scott had to remember this was mythology.
No doubt, many of us can relate to this kind of parental advice.
Family life is not dwelt upon in 72 Raisins, but is artfully suggested. Little details such as Rebecca leaving the radio quietly tuned to classical music so that anyone returning to the empty house doesn’t feel lonely, and the way she can be relied upon to answer text messages immediately, are quietly moving and evocative. The scenes in the family home and the family car are among the best in the novel. Scott and Rebecca share a similar sense of humour but, unlike Scott, Rebecca knows when to stop and sees when her husband uses humour merely to deflect difficult questions.
Seven Mythic Doorways to Freedom becomes a Pandora’s box of doubt and nihilism that threatens everything that Scott holds sacred:
What if God was just a story? Was the comfort of a potential heaven, or even seventy-two raisins, just the next palliative in a long line of comforts from birth to death? Pulling us forwards, soothing us through the pain of life? Was life indeed painful, or did he even know? He hadn’t experienced anything without the undercurrent of a deeper, assumed connection to something greater than himself. That would always be there, that was taking care of him.
Any writer is likely to question his or her motivations sooner or later. Somewhere behind their lust to create there is usually a quest for love, validation or immortality (preferably accompanied with huge sales and a film option).
Scott wondered if his own pursuit of recognition was tied to some kind of story he was telling himself. Was he proving his father wrong, that he was in fact able to be a ‘man’ and provide for his family using nothing more than his humour? What would he do if his humour left him? If God left him? Could he do this life without God? What if God was merely the hope of future solutions to current problems?
Deepak Chopra and his New Age mysticism are mentioned numerous times in 72 Raisins because, after all, California has had its share of religious cults and spiritual movements, quacks and charlatans, messiahs and gurus. Scott’s story is in part the story of a nation whose professions of faith are everywhere but whose doubts and uncertainties erupt in myriad ways. This is not a story that could have been written in the UK, for example, where secularism is the de facto religion.
Comedy is often no laughing matter. It requires a great deal of talent and hard work to get it right, much of it collaborative. It is notoriously difficult to perform. It is a medium that is often undervalued and misperceived as trivial or mere entertainment. When it’s bad it’s bad; when it’s good, we are so busy laughing that we cannot reflect about it afterwards. Yet great comedy is as great as great tragedy, for example, and the two often go hand in hand. 72 Raisins shows the toll it takes on Scott, whose mental processes circle the humorous possibilities of any and every situation, no matter how serious.
It is a strength of 72 Raisins that whether or not the reader foresees the revelation that comes midway through the book, it does not matter. What matters is its effect on Scott. Similarly, in the early stages of the novel, where there are many extracts from Seven Mythic Doorways that take us away from the main narrative, it is possible to doubt one’s commitment to reading yet, at the same time, be compelled to continue. Readers who persevere will be glad they did so. It is a funny, moving and ultimately serious novel that concludes with a moment of quiet grace.
Overhead Bin Publishing | ISBN 9780692139462 (eBook) | ISBN 9780692148082 (pbk)