Picks and Pans Review: M31: a Family Romance

updated 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/24/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

by Stephen Wright

The book jacket offers a perfect vision of what lies within. The cover drawing shows a dingy white church in a lonely field somewhere in the Midwest, with a satellite dish growing out of the steeple. Wright creates a disturbing, surreal portrait of the American family that lives there. The parents, who call themselves Dash and Dot, are away most of the time lecturing about their ancestors—who, D&D believe, came from the galaxy M31. In their living room sits a dummy spaceship in which one of their daughters, Trinity, has secret lesbian sex. Their murderous son, Dallas, guzzles beer nonstop and hides one of his victims in the yard so that he can monitor the body's decomposition. Dash and Dot also have an autistic daughter, Zoe, and they interpret her seizures as UFO contacts. Wright, whose only previous novel is the Vietnam fiction Meditations in Green, uses this quirky cast to chronicle the decay of a culture littered with violence and mental illness. The family eventually breaks up when Dash goes bonkers, beats up Dallas and escapes in the rickety family VW. Wright sets his stage with such familiar 20th-century American props as Holiday Inns, Gilley's sweatshirts, 7-Elevens and dopey TV quiz shows. At times, Wright's prose is self-indulgent; more often it is haunting. "Fatherhood is a crucifixion," Wright says. "You die by degrees with outstretched arms." M31 calls to mind Thomas Pynchon's "Entropy," a story about the degeneracy of a culture, but Wright's work is more frightening, offering a distorted and unflattering idea of how others—or maybe Others—might see us. (Harmony, $18.95)

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