Tales of epic journeys have always been popular. However, they’re never quite of our own world. While the quest for the Holy Grail is still pretty cool, its heroes are from yesteryear. Hobbits are mighty lovable, but the fellowship of the ring exists completely off our map. Perhaps there’s something to this separation. Just as our collective imagination seems to crave quest stories, we also seem to expect that the mythical nature of these stories lend themselves, most reasonably, to an other-worldliness.
This is what makes Benjamin Parzybok’s debut novel, Couch, so remarkable. Unlike most quest stories, Parzybok’s combines the mythical with the ultra-contemporary. His quest begins—and is anchored—in our own world—Portland, Ore., to be specific (which is nowhere near either Mordor or Camelot, in case anyone was wondering).
Thom is an out-of-work computer programmer who, at one time, enjoyed some minor fame as a hacker par excellence. In the last three months, Thom’s been laid off, dumped by his girlfriend and has been forced to move into a new apartment with two other guys he barely knows: Erik, a con-man who never quite seems to pull off a con, and Tree, a quiet, pie-baking hippie who keeps telling Thom not to worry about the whole job thing because “I dreamed you wouldn’t have to worry about getting a job, so I’d hate for you to have to waste a lot more time looking for one, you know?”
Just a few nights after moving in, the boys are forced to move out, due to the collapse of a waterbed in the apartment above (a gymnast and a horse jockey got a bit too wild in bed, it turns out) and the ensuing water damage. With nowhere to go and almost nothing to keep them in Portland, the boys decide to pack up what little they need, dump the rest, and go on a trip to wherever-ville for however-long.
Strangely enough, there’s one thing holding them back: a large, bright orange couch with haphazard stitching that can’t be pried loose, even with a knife. Thom, Erik and Tree are not the first roommates to find themselves with a large piece of unwanted furniture but, still, there’s something funny about this couch: “There was a nagging in [Tree’s] mind, a leftover fleck of dream or a mishandled scrap of intuition, nothing more than a reminder that the couch was an item that required some kind of attention.”
So, they carry it a few blocks through Portland’s city streets to the Goodwill. Goodwill won’t take it because it’s not a brand-name couch. They’re refused by another secondhand store. At this point, the gentlemen realize their couch has magical powers—its weight fluctuates, growing heavier or lighter depending on the boys’ direction, as though registering its protest or assent with the journey. When a local journalist stops them to ask why they’re carrying a couch all over town, they spontaneously hatch a plan: They’re carrying the couch across America to, uh, fight world hunger or maybe to take the symbol of sedentary life and put it into action?
Despite the half-baked idea, the trio does begin carrying the couch, not quite understanding why they’re compelled to do so and becoming more and more aware of its strange, insidious powers. It lures them into deep slumbers, making them awake in terror. It floats in water. Within just a few days, the lighthearted quest becomes a serious one. In a blogpost, Thom asks if anyone can find a reasonable explanation for the couch’s mysterious powers and the responses are startling: It could have been injected with strange additives by the Pentagon, it might contain Pandora’s box, it could have been bewitched by a wizard king who made love on the couch, only to watch his victims die after orgasm. As Thom, Erik and Tree continue on their quest to return the couch to wherever it might belong, the impending results of their journey become more and more magnified. That the magic ring of this novel is a couch—perhaps the most potent symbol of American apathy—is all the more significant, as the reader finds out.
In truth, Couch is a quest like any other quest: “Chosen” ones embark on some kind of long and dangerous journey, bad guys try to hurt them, good guys help them along the way, the journey ends and, well, I’ll let you read what happens there. Parzybok understands the necessary components of an epic journey and has paid due homage to its predecessors.
Yet, in remarkably sharp prose, he weaves the nuances of our very recognizable realities—like e-mail addiction—with the mythical wonderment that is part of the classic quest story, making the journey in Couch a particularly memorable re-imagining.
Benjamin Parzybok reads from Couch Monday, March 23, at Fact & Fiction Downtown at 7 PM. Free.