Featured Reviews, VOLUME 4

Review: Bright Before Us: A Novel by Katie Arnold-Ratliff [Vol. 4, #22.5]

A Review of

Bright Before Us: A Novel
Katie Arnold-Ratliff
Paperback:  Tin House, 2011.
Buy now: [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

Reviewed by Thomas Turner.

Spinning a tale of love lost in an age of detachment, individualism and postmodern angst, Katie Arnold-Ratliff has given us a stunning debut novel in Bright Before Us. From the first pages, when we are introduced to the cynical, wandering soul of the protagonist, Arnold-Ratliff begins to build a story that is haunting like a gothic novel but has the characteristics of a chic lit novel. Like Sufjan Stevens using auto-tune in an epic indie rock symphony or Quentin Tarantino using B-movie sensibilities in arthouse cinema, Arnold-Ratliff has used the now-clichéd Jane Austen approach to a love story and turned it on its head, breathing into it the raw humanity of love in a dark world, the moral ambiguity of Generation Y and the listlessness of a new generation of men.

It is in her depiction of the condition of man that I found so nerve-racking and on point. Writing her novel from a male’s perspective, Arnold-Ratliff captures the angst that young men continue to face in our world of diminished value. Where once there was Homer Simpson, the lovable goofball who did a menial job and spent his life in idle leisure, the rising generation yearns desperately for work that has value but the circumstances of the economy and American life, taken for granted by previous generations, are making a life lived in pursuit of something more nearly impossible. The protagonist is placed into this angst of suburbia, endless commuting and detachment from vocation. He wants desperately to get out, but in an irony all too common amongst my generation, he is too cynical, too individualistic and too consumeristic to do anything to make his life more meaningful.

Into this world the novelist weaves a triangle of neediness of the characters’ own creation, as if each of them needed the drama and hardship of lust and selfishness to enable them to feel anything besides the pain and brokenness of a generation unmoored from the social institutions that assisted previous generations. With nothing guiding them but their own desires, what plays out is a story that the characters write for themselves, oscillating between growing up and settling down and the freewheeling individualism of Kerouac. What is left is a vision of a rising generation that has the inability to cope, stuck in arrested development, not fully alive and not really dead. It is a generation unable to voice the economic, moral and social insecurity hovering over all of this:

I went back to Greta somewhere around the fifth week, half alive, to prepare stoically for domestic life, suburbia, fatherhood. I felt certain that she knew where I had been, what I had been doing ? that she had intuited at least the flavor of my absence, if not its particulars. And yet she said nothing. So neither did I. (250)

The world, in its insecurity and bleakness, makes us succumb to muteness. From such reckless optimism of our youth we are thrown into the world, and there seems no way out of the circumstances that once looked so bright before us all.


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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com

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