Apathy, interrupted 

William Dewey spins a rich slacker tale

In Cat’s Cradle, Kurt Vonnegut invents the term “granfalloon.” It means a group of people who believe they have a common purpose or identity, but whose association is actually meaningless. Examples, writes Vonnegut, include “…the Communist Party, the Daughters of the American Revolution, the General Electric Company, the International Order of Odd Fellows—and any nation, anytime, anywhere.”

It’s a wonderful conceit. And true. Nationhood, of course, is based on the most meaningless characteristics of all—the congruence of the happenstance of geography and the accidence of birth. But granfalloons occupy most of our public cultural space: family, class, school, clubs, sports teams.

Vonnegut’s invention of granfalloons coincided with—or, perhaps, influenced—the rejection of traditional institutions in the 1960s and beyond. So, as the values of country, family and religion are questioned and rejected, they’re replaced by…what? One answer is “slackerism,” an anti-movement comprised of rootless young people with no institutional allegiances or firm moral code, who wander in lazy and amoral but intellectually curious packs, contemplating Saturday morning cartoons and the meaning of life with equal fervor.

But there’s a cost to being rootless, to rejecting popular groups and institutions. Community is lost. Discipline, structure and order are lost. With all the limitations of, say, nationalism, our country still offers us traditions, a sense of place and history, a collective narrative, and other people. Without these things there is no purpose.

And that’s where William Dewey’s novel, Without a Soul to Move, begins.

Dewey’s book is the story of three men—Wayne, Howie and Adam—who struggle to impose meaning on their lives. Each drifts along in a loose network of Denver 20- and 30-somethings, each deeply flawed, looking to escape the self-imposed bounds of self-perception. For instance, Adam, in reaction to the near-simultaneous death of his parents—his father to cancer, his mother to a heart attack shortly after—dresses up as Batman and prowls Denver’s darkened alleys looking for crime to fight. Adam wants to do good.

Howie suffers from a bout of unrequited love. Sparked by a long-ago flirtation with Adrienne—who still leads Howie on even as she’s engaged to another man—Howie ditches his good job for a Johnny Rockets’ gig, whiskey and couch surfing; pathetic for a man approaching his mid-30s. Howie needs love.

Wayne is a computer geek who seeks to measure his personal importance by “disappearing” and noting the disturbance his absence makes among his acquaintances. Nobody notices he’s gone. He despairs and buys a gun, ostensibly with which to kill himself. Wayne is looking for a community.

Notably absent from the story is family, work, school. The book takes place in Denver, but it’s not a story about Denver. It could be anywhere. There’s no history outside the characters’ relationship to one another, no sense of a future. The characters never move along the typical timeline of progression from child to adult to parent to grave. They aren’t really moving at all.

Dewey uses omniscience to tell the story from the viewpoint of a dozen or so characters. It’s wildly effective as well as superbly melodic. As we follow each character, it becomes obvious that everyone is handicapped by self-interested consciousness. With Carissa, for example—who has just learned about Wayne’s disappearance and possible suicide—we discover her interest in Wayne was the result of a drunken one-night stand with him. She wants to find him—not out of any genuine concern for his well being, but to see if their dalliance left any mark on him, to see if she inspired love.

Nobody is intentionally malicious. Each is a luminous spirit in flawed, fragile, human forms.

Dewey also bends the form of the novel. Some passages refer to “I,” and this voice infers that most of the book was invented from a series of articles found in a Denver alt-weekly about a mysterious man who thought he was Batman. Toward the end of the book, characters interact with a “supreme” voice that breaks through both the narrative voice and their own limited views. Wayne, for example, lays sick in bed with a fictitious book (The Idiot’s Tale) that “talks” to him, revealing the larger truths of the book to him, and allows him to make real decisions about his life. Likewise, Howie encounters a bearded homeless man, who does the same for him.

In the end, all three characters fail to find what they need. Instead, they realize the falseness of what they’d been looking for. And there’s a hint of an answer to the question of purpose—a realization that we need it.

“There would be time to make sense of all this later,” thinks Adam at the book’s conclusion. “They had the will. All they needed was devotion…They would change the world. Until then, it was fine to sit as they sat now, in silence.”

Interestingly enough, in Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle there was an alternative to granfalloon. A “karass” meant a group of people working in unconscious harmony to bring about the will of God.

William Dewey reads from and signs copies of Without a Soul to Move at Fact & Fiction Thursday, Aug. 14, at 7 PM.
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