x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Where'd You Go, Bernadette: a literary sitcom

The former screenwriter Maria Semple's compulsive second novel, an intricately constructed mystery about a woman's disappearance in suburban Seattle, has some narrative flaws but is still very funny.

Where'd You Go, Bernadette
Maria Semple
Where'd You Go, Bernadette Maria Semple W&N Dh40

There's an argument to be made that the finest 21st-century American storytellers are working in television.

Make no mistake, most TV, American or otherwise, is ghastly stuff. But most of today's novels aren't so special either. This probably explains why a growing number of American television programmes have conquered and colonised the territory that was once the true stomping ground of the novel: the large-canvassed social, political and deeply personal narrative. Call it the luxurious pull of a long tale well told, and think of series like The Sopranos, Mad Men, Deadwood, Six Feet Under or put it this way: how on earth could a US crime writer compete with The Wire, a programme that is positively Victorian in its form of serialised storytelling.

Now the novelists are going into television. Can you blame them? Jonathan Franzen tried and (and failed) to ambitiously adapt The Corrections for HBO on the heels of Game of Thrones, their brilliant adaptation of George RR Martin's Song of Ice and Fire fantasy series, and the charming Bored to Death, which was created and written by the novelist Jonathan Ames.

Not to be outdone, Jonathan Safran Foer is currently writing a series that will feature Ben Stiller on both sides of the camera.

But what of going the other way, from writing television to writing novels? From sitcoms, say, to a comic novel?

Maria Semple is a novelist who was once an acclaimed screenwriter on shows like Ellen, Saturday Night Live and, importantly, Arrested Development, which arguably ranks among the finest TV comedies of the century.

Maybe a reason for her switch can be found in the pages of Semple's compulsive second novel, Where'd You Go, Bernadette. Whereas writing for TV involves a fairly large amount of compromises, writing a novel is more dangerous: you pretty much live and die by your own words. It's all you. That can be a blessing as far as creative control, but also a curse because, hey, what if all you isn't actually all that good to begin with? Who is going to tell you?

The titular character of Semple's book, the acid-tongued, mildly agoraphobic, massively antisocial and apparently totally brilliant Bernadette Fox, is someone that needs this kind of complete creative control.

For Bernadette, it's that or nothing. So in the middle of nothing - or nowhere - or, technically, Seattle, a city she hilariously despises - is where we find Bernadette Fox at the start of the novel. As one of her old friends puts it: "People like you must create. If you don't create, Bernadette, you will become a menace to society."

Where'd You Go, Bernadette is about all the ways in which Bernadette, a former architectural wunderkind and recipient of the prestigious MacArthur Fellowship (or Genius Grant), becomes a menace to herself, her family and those around her. The novel is an intricately constructed mystery of a woman's breakdown and eventual disappearance. It's also very funny.

It begins with a note from Bee Branch, Bernadette's daughter: "The first annoying thing is when I ask Dad what he thinks happened to Mom, he always says, 'What's most important is for you to understand it's not your fault.' You'll notice that wasn't even the question. When I press him, he says the second annoying thing, 'The truth is complicated. There's no way one person can ever know everything about another person'."

For much of the rest of the book we're taken back over the last few months before Bernadette's disappearance. Bee Branch makes for an enjoyable occasional narrator. She's in eighth grade at Galer Street School, where she does the sort of annoying, precocious things befitting a character whose given name is actually Balakrishna.

Galer Street is the kind of Pacific Northwest liberals-run-amok place that celebrates something like "World Celebration Day", and its collection of over-involved parents are the first half of the novel's primary villains, especially Bernadette's neighbour, Audrey Griffin. Audrey's mania relating to Bernadette's overgrown blackberry bushes is both deliciously satirical and risible, but her character is so well drawn that Semple makes you want to personally march straight over to Audrey's house and chop down her trees. Self-divided into "Mercedes Parents" and "Subaru Parents", Bernadette quite rightly refers to all of the Galer Street mums and dads as, simply, "the gnats". You will too.

Bee's father, Elgin Branch, is just as precocious as his daughter and wife. He began his career as a computer animator but was eventually eaten alive by Microsoft - or MS as everyone in Seattle calls it - and became a "Level 80 Corporate VP" and head of his mysterious, revolutionary Samantha 2 project. Nevertheless, among MS employees he's a rock star. Semple is good at satirising corporate life at the tech giant, and at one point Bernadette laments, "It turns out, the whole time in LA, Elgie was just a guy in socks searching for a carpeted, fluorescent-lit hallway in which to roam at all hours of the night. At Microsoft, he found his ideal habitat."

Unfortunately, though, a lot of Where'd You Go, Bernadette will try your patience, especially the manipulative manner the novel tries to wrap things up and redeem everyone in the exact kind of feel-good "World Celebration Day" manner it previously poked fun at. Bit by bit, Semple reveals the plot's central mystery, which isn't only what happened to Bernadette but, more importantly, who she actually was. The great mystery isn't where she went, but how she got there in the first place.

Following Bee's brief introduction, the novel is mostly epistolary. We are witness to a collection of "supporting" documents leading up to Bernadette's disappearance. This story told mostly via a variety of emails, instant messages, letters, emergency room bills, handwritten notes, captain's logs, police reports, live blog transcriptions, psychiatrists reports, Christmas cards and even a PDF of an Art Forum article featuring interviews with people who knew Bernadette back when she was still a "genius".

The truth, then, is complicated, but in Semple's hands it's almost always engaging and often surprising. What else happens? What doesn't. Everything from Antarctic voyages and shocking pregnancies to suburban mudslides.

Of course, you're going to have to suspend your disbelief. For example, are we really supposed to believe that two Galer Street School mums communicate in five-page emails complete with long stretches of novelistic dialogue? Don't they know how to talk? Couldn't they text?

But that's a small quibble, because those emails happen to be pretty funny, and, like much of the Where'd You Go, Bernadette's other problems, in the end you'll overlook them. Simply, this is a fun book with a big heart and one that is delivered free from either canned laughter or commercials.

Tod Wodicka is the author of the novel, All Shall Be Well; And All Shall Be Well; And All Manner of Things Shall Be Well. He lives in Berlin where he is at work on his second novel, The Household Spirit.