Renée Branum

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Funny story: the writing is so good in this book that it almost tricked me into giving it a better rating than I think it actually deserves. Usually it’s the other way around. Branum’s prose is stunning, and it is consistent: a lot of times authors will draw me in with a paragraph or two of beautiful writing and then quickly revert to something that is easier to write but of lesser quality, but this isn’t the case with Defenestrate. I don’t mind the neverending similes, because they are at least well-written. I just wish the writing were matched by the plot.

Defenestrate is narrated by Marta, a young woman whose name we don’t actually learn until page 127 (or sooner, if you bother to read the dust jacket blurb). Her mother’s family came from the Czech Republic in 1895, fleeing Prague after Marta’s great-great-grandfather Jiří pushed a Roma stonemason out of a window on a church steeple. His children told their own children that he did this to avenge the seduction of his young daughter, who might or might not have been pregnant with the stonemason’s child at the time that they fled, and those children passed this story down to their children, all the way down to the present day. They now live in the American midwest, but are haunted by a superstitious suspicion that their entire family has been cursed by the stonemason’s murder. This belief is a pervasive force in all of their lives, and it is seemingly supported by the numerous times various family members have suffered bad falls, albeit not necessarily fatal ones. Growing up under the shadow of this purported curse, Marta latches onto the family mythology and turns it into almost her entire identity. Her obsession encompasses Buster Keaton, a silent film actor who built his brand around the general theme of falling, and famous falls throughout history, whether the fallers are related to her or not. She goes through her life expecting to be another in a long line of falling people, given her lifelong fascination with heights, but this expectation is shattered when her twin brother Nick falls off the balcony of his apartment and ends up in the hospital.

Of course, this isn’t the only fall that either of the twins has suffered. They have fallen in love, fallen into alcoholism, fallen into despair. They have fallen out with their mother and fallen into situations that perhaps they shouldn’t have. They have fallen morally – they seem to think nothing of shoplifting – and fallen in and out of work. There are so many ways of falling, and they have explored them all. Their biggest fall was perhaps their split with their conservative Catholic mother, who threw Nick out of her house when he came out to her. Their father suffered a fatal heart attack during the violent fight that followed the coming-out, and the twins – in an ironic reversal of their family history – fled to Prague, where they lived for the next few years, working odd jobs and shoplifting to make ends meet, and drinking themselves blind. In the present, they have returned to America and now live in separate apartments a couple hours away from their mother, but, though Nick seems to be trying to get himself onto a healthier track, Marta continues to drink heavily. (I’m wondering how she pays rent on a single apartment while also sustaining an alcohol addiction on a substitute teacher’s salary. Suspension of disbelief, I suppose.) A lot of the drinking takes place when she is alone in her apartment, but she also frequents bars, where she tells other patrons about her many falling relatives for no apparent reason, and without any sort of solicitation. Her general unwellness is compounded by the growing distance between herself and Nick, upon whom she is utterly dependent; and she also suspects that Nick’s fall was an attempted suicide.

It is in this state that her mother finds her, worn down to the breaking point by the alcohol, her worries about Nick, and the unsent letter in Nick’s apartment, in which he hints that the family history isn’t quite what Marta thinks it is. Their reunion does not go particularly well, but they talk long enough for Marta to learn that her mother now regrets her reaction to Nick’s coming-out, and that she wants to be a better mother to them both. In their initial cautious attempts to start to make amends, her mother tells her that the family is not actually cursed. Jiří did push a man out a window, but the seduction and the curse were invented by Marta’s great-grandmother Agáta, daughter of Jiří, as a way of euphemizing the strain of mental illness that runs through the family. Jiří had been struggling for years prior to the murder; the loss of his job was the final straw, and, in a welter of confusion, he tried to return to his work on the church steeple whose construction he had been overseeing. The lone stonemason in that steeple knew he wasn’t fit to work and tried to coax him back downstairs, which led to a struggle, which led in its turn to the original fall.

This confession does not, obviously, fix everything. But it’s a start. Though still muddled and confused, both by her life in general and by her family dynamics, Marta begins to think about other things than falling and drinking. She seems to tentatively accept her mother’s peace-making overtures, and she even mulls over the idea of writing to Morena, an Italian woman she met in Prague after following an advertisement for a pet-sitter who could learn to squeeze a cat’s bladder. (Yes, really.) Their relationship had the potential to turn romantic, but fizzled after a while; still, even knowing that Morena may be married by now, this seems like a good bridge to repair. The book ends on a nostalgic, relatively hopeful note: now is the time for the rebuilding to begin.

I wish I could have given this a higher rating, not only because the writing is gorgeous but because this is precisely the sort of thing that appeals to me. I like the loose, almost playful nature of the story, from the unconventional structure to the anecdotes that are woven into the narrative. Marta’s segments alternate with side stories about Buster Keaton, the Czech writer Bohumil Hrabal, famous falls from recent history, and more. The internal focus, which almost reaches the level of an unbroken interior monologue, doesn’t bother me. But it is very hard to follow, much less support, a character who is so relentlessly self-obsessed. Buying into the family fairy tale is one thing. It’s a whole other thing to start inflicting it on unsuspecting strangers who didn’t even ask. The thing is, I don’t really like Marta, so her habit of babbling about falling relatives doesn’t come off as a charming quirk. In fact, I have no idea what her personality actually is, because she is dependent on alcohol, Nick, and her obsession with falling. She works so hard to tie every fall-related event to her own personal history, but most of the time there is no connection. It got to the point where I wanted to tell her to just let it go. It almost feels as if the whole falling narrative gives her a sense of importance or belonging, or perhaps just entitlement. What is the intention here – “My family falls off of buildings, admire me”?

The babbling-to-strangers thing would have been less off-putting if she didn’t seem so surprised that not everybody wants to hear about people falling out of windows. I’m sorry, but if some random stranger at a bar suddenly started telling me about their aunt who hallucinated some kind of goblin man in the middle of the night and jumped out a window to get away from him, my pure unfiltered reaction would be “Why the fuck are you telling me this?” I don’t think this is an unreasonable question. Nor does she ever seem to have a good answer, despite the number of people who apparently have asked her this. The storytelling is entirely for her own catharsis. If any woman ever needed a blog or a platform of some kind, it would absolutely be Marta. Like, talk about it on the internet if you really need to talk about it, but don’t force your depressing stories onto me for no reason. I’m not your fucking therapist. (That is unkind, and I am sorry. But that’s how I feel.) We never get a diagnosis for Marta, but this uncontrollable need to inflict her stories on the rest of the world, coupled with her need to make every fall relevant to her family and her view of herself as Nick’s caretaker, does make me wonder if narcissism is in the mix somewhere.

And, in the end, the whimsy of the story undermines its focus on the people. I don’t know these characters. Marta – or Branum, take your pick – spends so much time telling me about people who aren’t actually in the story that I never got to know her or Nick, whom I keep wanting to call Jacob. The characters are so tenuous that I can’t even remember their names half the time; their motivations are a fog. I don’t know what makes Marta tick, or Nick, or even their mother, though she is somewhat easier to pinpoint. The twins are more nebulous. The one thing I do know is that they’re never particularly likable. Nick’s dip into alcoholism makes sense, given his fight with his mother and his residual guilt over the death of his father, but it’s not clear to me what Marta is drinking away. I don’t like that the ugliness of Nick’s temper is just barely acknowledged despite the amount of time he spends picking fights with strangers, or that the twins are, objectively, obnoxious Americans during their time in Prague. I am bothered by how casually they both resort to shoplifting, even if they only do it – as they claim – for essentials. Even if we can blame most of these things on their respective illnesses, these are never defined, and the book never gives us any reason to jump to a specific diagnosis.

Ultimately, my overall feelings about this book are ambiguous. I don’t love it. I don’t hate it. I don’t really care about it, as much as I wish I did. I picked it up because it happened to fall into my line of sight while I was at the library and I like the word “defenestrate,” but its narrating character is just a little too stuck on herself, and the book as a whole just a little too untethered. This is unusual for me, a holder of strong and often unpopular opinions, but I really don’t know how I feel. As with most of the characters, it’s up in the air.