There is a somewhat recent punctuation mark, devised by an adman in the '60s (seems like the Don Draper thing to do), that combines the question mark with the exclamation point to make an eloquent expression. Not the cleverest lexicographic innovation, the interrobang nonetheless cuts down on the visually irritating alternation of ?!?!?!. The symbol either denotes an enthusiastic emphasis ("Where did all these peanuts come from?!?!?!") or a heightened sense of exasperation. I used interrobangs for the first time this past week in my pile of notes on Marina Snow's fourth novel, Landing Place. While I did not notice any interrobangs in her book, they seem constantly implied, and usually in the latter sense.
In Snow's book, it is 1967 and Celeste Castle's husband, Cal, has just abandoned her and their kids at a Las Vegas airport on their way to Cal's new teaching position in New Mexico. Celeste fears that Cal has joined the acid craze in Haight-Ashbury, continuing his fascination with LSD and a higher consciousness, and her worries are soon confirmed. Soon, she and the kids are building a new life in Los Cerros, N.M., far away from her husband and the national instability he represents. Celeste gets a job at a plant nursery, starts courting a landscaper with the farfetched name of Red Masters, travels to Mexico and takes dance lessons.
For Landing Place, I accumulated twelve long pages of notes and quotations. There are only two entries that are not critiques:
1 The premise is decent.
2. Snow obviously adores her cast.
Outside of these, there is nothing in Landing Place that strikes one as provocative.
What struck me first is that Snow's people do not know how to interact. Young adult-sounding dialogue blends gratingly with unmitigated cliché. Her lingo seems lifted from a Lifetime movie (I have transcribed it in stage play format to retain the unintentionally David Mamet-ish diction):
Cal: Who do you think you are?... Why can't you be like other women?
Celeste: I'm still me, the woman you married... I haven't changed.
Cal: Well, I never figured you were going to barge in on me and the fellas' poker game.
While the premise is momentarily appealing, Snow's plot and musings are often ludicrous, producing a horde of interrobangs. A day after Cal vanishes, Celeste spontaneously decides to become a casino shill, where she makes the astounding discovery that there is such a thing as dishonest employees. Unfortunately, the book is loaded with these sorts of strange turns and mediocre ruminations.
Early on in Landing Place, narrative collapses into a catatonically un-eventful glimpse of an unexceptional woman living in an unexceptional place at the start of an epochal time. This is a stultifying account of Southwest tourism and horticultural vocabulary (I am pretty much an expert now, totally against my will, on the differences between bluegrass and Bermuda grass). Instead of psychological depth, we are regaled with textbook facts about trees, plants and why adobe buildings are nice. Trips to monuments and spectacular landmarks like Carlsbad Caverns are given the same treatment, opting for telegraphed information over any kind of creative immediacy. And also included, in case the reader's intelligence hadn't been questioned enough, are clarifications of difficult words like "cavern," "speakeasy," "aloe vera" and "methamphetamine." Half of Landing Place is filled with postcard descriptions, while the other half doesn't need to be described at all. And still, it wouldn't necessarily be so bad if the characters' emotions and interactions didn't have that same guidebook feel.
For a novel that markets itself as an exploration of the Summer of Love, there is little here to qualify it as a work of generational angst. Besides a two-chapter college lecture on the political underpinnings and notorious orgies of San Francisco hippies, Landing Place could have taken place anywhere during any era. Rather than tuning in to Tim Leary, countercultural activism or the Vietnam War, Snow tightly concentrates on the blissful biography of a lachrymose heroine and her neat, unambiguous world. Cal's peripheral, acidhead menace, which should give the book some amount of trepidation, is pedestrian and almost farcical. By the time Cal shows up at Celeste's house with a blond floozy in tow to reclaim his children, I'd already come to the unpleasant conclusion that we'd been following the wrong character all along. Cal's acidhead odyssey would have made a far more compelling portrait of the era.