Thursday, March 12, 2015

Review: "If I Fall, If I Die" by Michael Christie

Diane Cardiel used to be an acclaimed filmmaker, but now she is a hermit, imprisoned in her own house by her severe anxiety. Her young son Will sees himself as her protector, the one who makes the phone calls and answers the door for the grocery deliveryman. But even Will won't set foot outside. The world has myriad ways to destroy a small, fragile human body, as Diane well knows.

When Will not only steps outside, but returns unharmed, his small world is shattered.

As Will strains against the leash of his mother's neuroses, Diane's fear worsens. The industrial squalor of Thunder Bay has already stolen the rest of her family. And Will's ravenous, unsuspicious curiosity about the world beyond the walls of their house is leading him into danger.


If I Fall, If I Die by Michael Christie (2015)
3 out of 5 stars

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 3/5
Evocation of Setting: 2/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 2/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 2/5
Memorability: 3/5
Bechdel Test: fail
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: anti-Native racism, gang violence, sexual language
Overall Response: Forget Will's generic coming-of-age, tell me more about Diane!


More Thoughts: I have rarely seen mainstream popular literature deal in any depth with mental illness, especially not something so unglamorous as anxiety. If I Fall, If I Die, Michael Christie's novel about a mother and child and the long-reaching effects of the disorder, is both vivid and humane in its portrayal. 

And the plot itself is almost memorable!

The first half of the book deals with Will's hesitant forays into the outside world, beginning to attend a public school and learning all the things he never needed to know before. Meanwhile, Diane's chapters depict a woman who is a far cry from pop culture's idea of an agoraphobe. Flashbacks are used to good effect, telling how a lively and capable woman descends and shrinks in the grip of mental illness. First the city was too frightening; then driving; then trusting a cab driver; so on and so forth, until it becomes entirely reasonable to remain locked inside for years. As she says in one of the book's many great lines, "It's not a prison if you've built it yourself. It's a fortress."

Diane's self-awareness is one of the great selling points here. Throughout the book she maintains that she never ordered Will to copy her reclusive lifestyle, while Will freely blames her for keeping him trapped. Christie has clearly done his research here. He depicts clinical anxiety as something that cannot be reasoned with or muscled through, only minimized and corralled.

Here, let me share a great conversation from partway through the book. Christie does a fine job here conveying both the ugly, hard reality of having an anxiety disorder, and the inability of Will, himself unaffected, to understand or to empathize.
"Mom? Is it because of Dad? Or is it because of your brother?"
"What, Will?"
"The... Black Lagoon?"
Her eyes were open and searching.
"The reason you can't go Outside," he added.
"Is that what you call it?"
"I don't know," she said. "In some way, I guess. I do miss them both. For different reasons. But it also comes from... me."
"Then you can stop it. If it's from Inside you."
"It's not that easy, honey."
"Being brave is never easy. That's why it's good for you."
She cocked her head and sighed but didn't say anything.
"What if we built you a shack in the backyard and brought all your stuff out there, like your bed and your books and guitar? Wouldn't it be basically the same?"
"It's more complicated than that."
"But if we painted it exactly like your room and got--"
"Look," she said, her voice cutting, "sometimes I'm scared to breathe, Will. The more I fight it, the worse it gets. But I've been doing better lately."
"Why be scared of breathing, Mom? Breathing never killed anyone. It keeps you alive. You just think about it too much."
"I've tried to stop thinking about it. Believe me."
"You need something to do. Like solve a puzzle or something. Find a mystery. Get a hobby. That's what I'm doing."
"Honey, I don't think crossword puzzles are going to fix this."
The second half of If I Fall, If I Die is not nearly so fascinating. Will's greatest virtue as a unique character lies in his contrast with his mother. Grown apart from her, he is an average Plucky Youngster of no particular virtues (and an unpleasant selfish/scornful streak in how he views other people.)

The mystery itself takes a while to appear. Will lacks the real-world context early on to establish what is normal and what is suspicious. (Speaking of those cues, there is a stretch when the book seems like something out of a different genre entirely--something postapocalyptic, perhaps, or some surreal urban fantasy. At first it works, because it speaks to Will's disorientation. After a while, it becomes less deliberate and more a failing on the author's part to provide the necessary grounding for his setting. I was shocked when Christie finally let on that the novel was set in contemporary times.)

It's difficult to take the mystery seriously. A novel about an average small town has little room for a mustache-twirling villain--one who monologues villainously at young children, no less, on a set piece blatantly designed for villainous showdowns. The "clues" are inelegantly shoved into place. Will just happens, at his age, to have read the books which give him the references being made by the "crazy man" at the docks. (Let's not discuss the cloying falseness of Titus's supposed insanity, where everything he says is a highbrow literary reference rather than the "word salad" that a person in Titus's condition might exhibit. After the realistic portrayal of Diane's anxiety disorder, the fictive elegance of Titus's unspecified madness is a disappointment.)

Other key scenes seem to be written on fast-forward. They are more summary than depiction. This works well when racing ahead through filler, condensing time. But Christie does his book an injustice when he applies the same abbreviation to would-be dramatic confrontations between Will and his mother.

The ending itself falls short as well. One really pat paragraph about skateboarders all having "their own personal Black Lagoon that skateboarding somehow rendered less terrifying" cheapens the severity of Diane's experience. Christie's uncritical empathy for her dries up. On the very last page, Diane is denied the right to choose her own safety and forced to experience something which is just about guaranteed to trigger a panic attack--and the reader is meant to cheer this as progress. I get what the author is trying to say about having to "face life," but it came across as cruel and threatening. Not a great note on which to end the novel.

For the originality of its starting premise--and for Christie's decision to maintain Diane as a narrator and a character in her own right, rather than focusing entirely on that pillbug Will--I still enjoyed the novel. Moreover, If I Fall, If I Die is charmingly written. Christie has a gift for language and vivid descriptions, and for lines that grab the reader's attention without feeling like deliberate flourishes. I had to mark a number of lovely turns of phrase, like Diane "producing praise like water from a tap [and] just as tasteless" or someone "swooping about on the skating rink of caffeine."

That's saying nothing about the insights into relationships--most obviously those between parents and children, but also those between children and all adults; between siblings; between juvenile boys; between social classes. It is a novel in which everyone you meet wants something from you, which may not be in your best interest to provide. The tension in those relationships almost makes up for the lackluster mystery.

(As a side note, I would frankly have a higher opinion of the author's writing if Christie had followed through regarding Will's heady crushes on the boys he meets. There was such promise at the close of the first chapter, with Will realizing that "this boy's brave, bright face was a light he wanted to shine upon him forever." His major impetus throughout the novel is searching for that unforgettable boy, and he is constantly absorbed by musings upon Jonah's physical grace. Yet the author backs away. Will's fade from a unique narrator to a generic Plucky Youngster was not bettered for his "happy ending" with a girl more off-screen than on-, whose entire role in the story was to have crushes on schoolboys.)

That's enough parenthetical remarks for one review.

At the end of the day, Christie is a better character portraitist than a plot-wrangler. Nevertheless, I would be interested in reading his next book or two when they are released. As a debut, If I Fall, If I Die promises better to come from this author's brain. If Christie continues with such fresh, insightful premises, even if it takes a while to get the development of action up to the same level of achievement, I'll be happy to keep reading.

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