Has the creation of a truly intriguing novel been relegated to the status of "achievement for dead folks?" Will books the quality of, say, Pride and Prejudice ever be produced again? Such questions are aroused by Skating in the Dark, David Michael Kaplan's first novel.
Kaplan, a professor at Loyola University in Chicago, writes with the pedantic style and method one might expect from a creative writing teacher. A hefty portion of the story, like filler in dog food, merely occupies space and adds mass but is unable to offer nutrition or satisfaction. The plot is contrived and stilted, irritating the audience rather than entrancing it. The book engenders the horrible realization that literature's tap of Great Fiction has run dry. Uh-oh.
But if one can overlook the drawbacks, there are kernels of wondrous description and gripping emotion worthy of appeciation scattered at points throughout the book. Unfortunately, Kaplan cannot produce a uniformly well-crafted work, like many authors of years past.
Basically the scope is just too broad for any 226-page novel. Frank, the protagonist and sometimes narrator, initially appears during the stress of his early childhood and we leave him in a mid-life crisis. Throughout the narrative Frank is frustrated by his inability to succeed.
As a youth his piano lesson prove fruitless. Describing a metronome, Frank reveals its menacing control over his mental state: "You will do this again and again and again, you will never get it right..." Later many trying or emotional moments are similarly encapsulated.
The text is divided into four distinct parts: Escape, Skating in the Dark, Ghosts, and Homecoming. Within each of these segments are three dated episodes from Frank's life. For example, under "Ghosts" is a section entitled "Camel-May 1978." This is a rather blatant, and, well, scholarly, technique for establishing a plot progression.
The novel also enters the realm of the story-within-a-story. At one point during a self-explorative visit to Greece, Frank ponders, "Maybe I would write about this. . . I would re-create everything: the cabride, the village and the old men..." This sentence follows upon Kaplan's presentation of these very details. Nifty plot device, huh?
Another quirky maneuver is the author's tendency to switch between first and third person. Ostensibly he seeks to portray Frank's distance from his numerous problems. Kaplan also varies the tense from past to present. Mostly, this makes the book less readable, truncating any natural flow. Occasionally in all these switch-eroos the author gets lost. For example, in the midst of a third-person narrative, he writes, "It does seem almost toasty. The fire is crackling brightly..." Who finds the fire toasty? Frank? His wife, Jena? Although Kaplan might know, the reader certainly does not.
Scenes From Frank's Life might have been a more appropriate title for Kaplan's disjointed string of tableaus. Years are omitted, and we experience only the seminal turning points, although previous life events are frequently recapped while Frank explains his current situations.
Skating in the Dark proves too mathematical, because everything fits precisely. There are moments replete with empathy and vividness, but Kaplan's collage of these separate events from one man's existence do not add up to a sum worth reading.
This story of life's monotony could have been written by many an American. Kaplan does not distinguish himself by challenging fiction's boundaries, although he delivers an adequate story. Frank's thought patterns are remarkably believable. His nature is very familiar, except he, like the comic strip character, is a born loser.