Erik Schroder is an East German who last saw his mother when he was five years old. In 1975 only his unspeaking father crossed the Wall with him into West Berlin and on to America. It is here that Erik Schroder becomes Eric Kennedy - his fateful, fictional second skin. It is Kennedy, deflecting wide-eyed enquiries in to his ancestry with a modest shrug (‘I wanted a hero’s name’), who is accepted in to college, who gets a job in real estate, who marries a woman named Laura and has a daughter named Meadow. But after the failure of this marriage, it is Schroder who kidnaps Meadow and takes her on a carnivalesque road trip through the New England countryside, a trip that progresses along increasingly blurred borderlines – physical, moral, mental.
Schroder, Amity Gaige’s UK debut, is presented not as fiction but as ‘a record of where Meadow and I have been since our disappearance’- not a novel but a ‘document’. Gaige playfully layers her narrative with textual oddities and hints at Schroder’s existence outside of the text (we may have heard of him in the news lately) in order to announce its own construction. By adopting the accessories of academia -‘(see page 15)’- Schroder’s ‘doubleness of mind’ is enacted at the level of the narrative which itself becomes schizoid, constituting a further revision of self. The novel is pretending too, its footnotes and episodic form mimicking the fragments of the protagonist’s selfhood. Memories are confined to marginalia, narrative restriction marks psychological repression.
Father and daughter drive further from home and experience the moral slackness of liminal territories. They have left the order of a society that knows them and have entered into the lawlessness of intermediate places. The journey affords Gaige the opportunity to expose the external show that enables existence, as Schroder becomes Kennedy becomes John Toronto. At times it is as if Schroder’s kidnapping of his daughter has less to do with the ostensible reason that he wishes to be with her against his ex-wife’s will, and much more to do with his continuing need to both assert and escape himself (at one point Schroder/Kennedy/Toronto leaves Meadow/Chrissy alone so he can have sex with another traveller, April, who, in having had a popular song named after her, is also a character from a fiction.) It is a narcissistic love: Meadow serves as the ultimate accessory to affirm the Kennedy masquerade. Much like the American accent and obligatory trips to football games, she becomes another attribute of Schroder’s ‘lovingly constructed American life.’
Schroder’s memory of sitting at his mother’s feet ‘pulling along a series of wooden blocks sewn together with a string’ is a telling one. The toy seems symbolic of the series of selves Schroder will trail around, of his family and the fraying connection that binds them. The child’s play carries an echo of the Freudian fort/da – a game of recurrent abandonment and retrieval involving the sequential execution of a moment of loss, that of the departed mother. Schroder’s separation from his mother as a child, her failure to follow him ‘West’ whether through choice or circumstance, informs the empty centre of his selfhood. ‘Who she was… remains hotly disputed. A tart. A fanatic. A collaborator. A communist.’ She too ‘played a role’, had many unsettled selves. Perhaps it is in order to master the trauma of his mother’s desertion that Schroder inflicts a similar severance upon his own daughter, taking her from her mother as he was taken from his.
Gaige has been praised for her skill in persuading her reader to ‘love a narrator who shouldn’t be loveable’ (Jonathan Franzen). While I found Schroder’s pseudo-intellectualism irritable, these are the traits of a man attempting to assert a dwindling authority and fill a hollow identity. Narrative diversions into Schroder’s study of silence, ‘Pausology’, eventually come to bear upon the great gouging silence of his father and the lacuna left by his mother. When read along these lines, Gaige provides a convincing portrait of a psychological subject whose fissured self is made manifest in a quiet textual instability.
Schroder, by Amity Gaige, is published by Faber (£14.99).