Confusion Corner: Novel by alumnus falls short of finding meaning

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November 20, 2009

2:24 AM

“It’s all about happiness,” Eddie tells his psychiatrist at the mental institution he’s just been admitted to. He’s describing a play he recently read, by a playwright named Martin Patrick Simon. “The play starts out and they’re still trying to figure shit out, trying to figure out how to be happy.”

The same could be said of all the characters in Joseph Riippi’s first, and not entirely successful, novel “Do something! Do something! Do something!” Riippi ’04, a former Confusion Corner columnist for The Flat Hat, attempts to encapsulate the uncertainty of post-collegiate youth through the stories of three 20-somethings — all, it can easily be said, going through their own personal struggles.

Eddie has just been checked into a mental facility by his estranged step-father after attacking a stripper with a broken bottle — but it’s clear his problems run far deeper than that. He’s visited by his step-sister, only identified as “the girl with the starfish tattoo,” who has personal problems of her own. Although she’s supportive of her brother, she can’t help but remember that Eddie’s assault is “not completely unlike what a man had once done to her,” triggering memories of her rape at age 22 and its resulting hardships.

The final strand of the novel follows Simon, the playwright, and his struggle to overcome a divorce prompted by the death of his prematurely born daughter. The novel interlaces these three stories — hardly ever in a linear fashion for no discernable reason — in the hope of creating characters emblematic of their generation.

But it’s these characters that really comprise the novel’s main weakness. At one point, Eddie describes someone from Simon’s play as the kind of person who thinks a “depressive biography [is] … a necessity for becoming a great writer.” The author seems to have a similar idea as to what creates a great protagonist. Each character is more of an avatar Riippi insists on subjecting to increasingly horrible events — rape, miscarriage, institutionalization, friends killed in Iraq, bowel cancer, dead preemies, suicide attempts. One assumes fans of “Saw” might flock to the book purely for the torture porn aspect. It’s never really clear what impact these events have, practically or psychologically on the characters, problems that motivate a character close to suicide may disappear entirely by the next time their narrative recurs, accomplishing nothing except to push each character toward a maturation that never actually materializes. Each is, as Eddie puts it, “pushed into the great unknown by TIME and REALITY and SHIT,” quite literally it turns out; each character’s dark and weighty past is punctuated with the stuff. But by the end each seems as indistinct as when the novel began.

Riipi’s notion of what defines a person may be responsible for this indistinction. Riippi seems solidly rooted in the camp that a person is defined by their combined experiences. Neglecting the part of character that is defined by action, by the choices people consciously make. Part of the reason these characters seem so indistinct might be because, despite having had quite a lot happen to them, they rarely, if ever, do anything themselves. Those with tragic lives and trust me, these characters have more tragic back-stories than a Marvel comic, still lead lives in the present. How a character’s past interacts with his or her present choices and actions is normally where a novel derives its conflict. But more often than not, the conflict present in “Do something” is merely an indistinct setting — a coffee shop, an abandoned bathroom stall — from which each character can further expand upon his or her sordid past. Sadly, “Do something!” is a phrase you’ll hopelessly be shouting at his characters well before novel’s end, to little avail.

This isn’t to say the novel fails entirely. The novel is a medium based on recurring images, a device to which Riippi seems well accustomed. Each plotline has elements that echo the others in a way that makes the novel subtly cohere where it quite easily could have fallen apart.

There’s definitely another point behind Riippi’s summation of our generation. His characters near relentlessly speak in allusion — through quotes by Susan Sontag, Leonard Cohen or Leo Tolstoy — and there’s something to be said about an entire generation unable to frame its own experiences without using the words of others. But it’s only stray thought stuffed into a novel far too overburdened with ideas to really effectively carry any of them out. A truly successful novel creates a story in which these ideas are able to emerge organically from an identifiable and engaging plot and set of characters, but neither of these aspects are apparent in “Do something.”

The most disappointing part is that any one character in the book, given a bit more to do and few more details to flush out his or her conflicting personality, could have easily become a protagonist worthy of a longer, and much better, novel. Between the line of this one are the traces a very good book: Riippi may just need to do a better job of sorting through the shit in order to find it.

__Kevin Mooney is the Flat Hat Confusion Corner columnist. He does not aspire to be a novelist, but finds it a worthy pursuit from his position.__

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