The recent case of an 18-year-old Briton who had an intimate relationship with a 13-year-old girl and subsequently walked free from court has been widely discussed both in the United Kingdom and overseas. Handing the young man a suspended sentence, the judge called him "very naive and immature".
The protagonist of Amity Gaige's novel, Schroder, who is also known as Eric Kennedy, a 40-year-old father, might be easily branded the same during his own day in court: he is guilty of child abduction, and the blue-eyed guilelessness that marks his confessional account of the week he spent on the run with his small daughter could make a jury sniffle. Especially if the jury, like the narrator, had a weakness for melodrama.
Kennedy tells the story at his lawyer's suggestion, trying to explain to his estranged wife how and why he disappeared with their six-year-old daughter. To answer the question "Were the actions of the accused premeditated?" he needs to write down his life story, the title of its first chapter, Apologia pro Vita Sua (literally, a defence of his life), setting the tone.
Born Erik Schröder, Amity Gaige's hero left East Berlin and then Germany, to come to America with his father. Growing up on a grim estate in Boston, he wants out of this immigrant life, so picks himself a new name, with Kennedy's 1963 visit to Berlin in mind, a deception that works surprisingly well.
He goes to college, leaving his real identity and his father behind, falls in love and marries a girl. They are happy, for a while, until the wife decides to throw in the towel. Fortnightly weekend meetings with his daughter, Meadow, punctuate a dull, aimless existence - and then, one day, Kennedy takes her on what becomes an extended road trip. Needless to say, the trauma of being separated from his own mother during his formative years is at the root of this ill-fated abduction.
The on-the-road plot line is the book's strongest suit. One sees recession-stricken America as the characters travel from Albany to Pittsburgh, not quite making it to Mount Washington (because of one of the many hiccups that eventually bring the holiday to its disastrous end). Scenes in a roadside bar, descriptions of Boston in the early 1980s and nearly three decades later, these are all vividly painted and create the kind of American atmosphere you would expect from such a book. The recollections of life on either side of the Berlin Wall, however, look less genuine.
As the relationship between the father and the daughter unfolds - now in real time, now retrospectively - one gets more intrigued.
Meadow is very clever for her age - so clever, in fact, that you start suspecting the father is making things up, at least partly, to demonstrate how beneficial his upbringing has been. Indeed, he spent a year as a stay-at-home dad, teaching the girl to read, taking her to the library, talking to her about everything and anything - in short, treating her as an equal.
The idea of taking her on the unplanned holiday stems from the same impulse: the man needs to have someone equal next to him, possibly to compensate for the lack of company in the past, when Irish kids on the block used to mock the German boy whose father never managed to lose his accent. Eric himself worked on his carefully, making sure never to betray his background.
Children are often used as weapons, both in life and in literature, from Anna Karenina (referred to in the narrative) to The Turn of the Screw, to Lolita, the novel that is most strongly evoked by Gaige's work, given certain - if rather formal - similarities between the plots.
Schroder needs not a weapon, rather a toy to play with, and Meadow makes a perfect one; the father gets more carried away playing games on a beach than the child does. The parallels with Nabokov's masterpiece extend. There are no direct sexual notes here, just some overtones, of the usual "Daddy, am I allowed to marry you when I grow up?" type. Daddy dutifully explains that this is not possible, adding, "But that's sweet of you to ask."
At some point, after all this adult talk, you start thinking that the author was, perhaps, aiming for a parody - if not a modern, mock version of Lolita then a parody of fatherhood. We are spared the details of the news coverage that accompanies the story of Schroder's flight, but that can be easily imagined and would probably tie in with the overall concept.
Gaige's third novel shows some traces of her earlier books - O My Darling also has a marital crisis at its heart, while The Folded World depicts a character's brush with mental illness, which may, after all, be the condition Eric suffers from - if you allow for normality and insanity to be separated by a fine line. Gaige has won a number of prizes for her works, praised by the critics for their style; Schroder, however, appears to be altogether more plot-driven.
The way the story is told is another interesting point here. The narrator, rather like Humbert Humbert, strains to embellish his prose, before ending up with four pages of continuous "I let you down". Sometimes he switches to officialese, referring to himself in the third person, presumably to remember that he is in jail.
We learn that Eric has been involved in some vague-sounding research. Nabokov's protagonist occasionally mentions his published works, although Eric has none - he hasn't made much progress with his Pausology: An Experimental Encyclopedia. And when it comes to writing style, instead of "it was still a nymphet's scent that in despair I tried to pick up, as I bayed through the undergrowth of dark decaying forests", we get this from Gaige's narrator: "We dried ourselves off with the scratchy towels and watched the stars enter the mind of the sky like a billion epiphanies."
Schroder has, in summary, many of the ingredients of Lolita: a hysterical incarcerated father, a German name, a precocious child, a road trip, small-town America, confessions and apologies. There seem to be some attempts at parody, and if they are not meant as such, it is hard to tell what their meaning really is. In the end, what the novel lacks most is a Nabokovian touch - but that would be a tall order.
Anna Aslanyan is a freelance writer and co-editor of 3:AM magazine.