Jeffrey Lockwood’s debut novel, Anomie, from Harvard Square Editions, is a novel of a man who is at odds with himself, and the very world around him. Anomie, defined by Webster, is “social instability resulting from a breakdown of standards and values; or personal unrest, alienation, and uncertainty that comes from a lack of purpose or ideals.” Like the title implies, the world of Anomie is one of shifting moral codes, and of melting cultures. It is a novel of instability, personal and cultural, that the protagonist must overcome.
Academia, like most jobs, is a trap. Lockwood’s criticism of its insular nature is evident as he details Michael’s past. Academia, like the ivy that climbs the English department buildings, is also a destructive force, pulling down the very egos it once held up. Part of Michael’s ego is crushed when he loses Helene, his true love, and part of his ego is crushed by addiction. After an accident in Canada, the once promising Fulbright winning Michael finds himself with a codeine addiction, and a despondent detachment to his job. Michael bottoms out and quits his job to go abroad, attempting a rebirth by teaching English in China. It is there he hopes to find himself once again. This is the world Michael inhabits, a world that Michael cannot function in, or understand; the disconnect of Western Individualism, and the confining, cloistered collectivism of the East. Michael belongs in neither world, and does not even belong to himself.
The novel’s prologue opens in dialect, and frames for the reader how language and culture can be both alienating and an adventure. Baby Michael is being sung to, and read asleep by Frenchie, who tells him the story of Gookoosh, a story about travel, strange adventure, and foreign places. Frenchie’s dialect is heavy, and pronounced, and the characterization becomes the metaphor for Michael’s conflict. Michael exists between cultures, and has so since birth. As the novel unfolds Michael attempts to forge his identity, to bring his halves together.
We meet Michael on a train, reading great works of Western literature, as he barrels into the heart of China. Michael’s detachment is palpable, and he stands out in stark contrast to the men on the train who have a useful purpose, traveling to work, whereas Michael is locked into his own memory and past, hanging on to the very identity he is trying to escape; the life of an academic poet. Michael is good at what he does, but he doesn’t seem to love it very much. He is nominated for a Stonington Award, a writer in residence fellowship that he ultimately turns down. Mostly because he wouldn’t feel comfortable around the faculty.
During Michael’s second semester of teaching in China he meets Li Qin, a precocious English student, and the two of them begin an on again, off again relationship. After she cheats on him with Brad, a pot smoking bohemian, Michael forces himself upon her and ends the relationship, sending him off into another downward spiral of alcoholic drinking. Li Qin pops up intermittently, a symbol of his recent past, a past he doesn’t understand. And Michael’s life continues to be the same old problems over and over again. Fear, self destruction, and lack of direction continue to haunt him. And when he finally meets Avery, a beautiful Chinese woman, he still cannot let go of the past. Helene, and Li Qin haunt him still. Avery, of course, has her own trappings, one of them being her arranged open marriage. Avery is game for Michael, but it is Michael who is hesitant.
Lockwood also flashback’s to Michael’s childhood struggle with his own mixed heritage, and it is where Anomie comes together as a story. Lockwood’s novel is a story of man without a place, who has to struggle and fight himself to become comfortable in his own skin, and up until the last chapters, it isn’t clear if Michael will find himself in China, or back home among the Native Americans of Crooked River.
The novel jumps, and the storyline is expansive. Michael is a character who isn’t very likable. He gives Lockwood a chance to discuss literature and criticize the trappings of America, the West, and careerist culture, but he doesn’t give the reader much to root for. He is restless, irritable, and discontent. It isn’t until the end of the book that Michael feels whole, feels fully realized as a person, or character. But of course, this comes after Lockwood puts Michael through the paces, giving him one personal failure after personal failure to contend with.