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An unreliable narrator-cum-émigré writes his confession to a jury about why he kidnapped his young daughter and drove her through America. The pair shack up in hotel rooms, the older man lumbering paranoid through days, fearing he will be forced to give up the light of his life. However, his daughter is not also the fire of his loins, and therein lies the obvious difference between “Schroder: A Novel,” by Amity Gaige, and its instinctual comparison work, Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita.” Thankfully, it is not just the lack of sexual obsession that differentiates the two; no, with playful rejection of Nabokov’s style and a focus on the even more seductive concept of assimilation, “Schroder” succeeds despite Gaige’s refusal to remain slave to the Nabokovian verve that endeared so many to “Lolita.”
The titular character reinvents himself from East German immigrant Erik Schroder to American all-star Eric Kennedy—slyly insinuating familial ties to the Kennedys by claiming he grew up in the fictional Twelve Hills, “a stone’s throw from Hyannis Port.” In describing his fascination with all things American, Erik writes: “At first I’d feel a pop of childish wonder, but this wonder was followed by the urge to stuff it back, because if I were a real American I would not have been in the least impressed with any of it.” With this opening salvo, Gaige refuses to fetishize a foreigner’s experience and the English language as Nabokov does in “Lolita” and “Pnin,” lending even more legitimacy to the narration’s plain style.
After decades as Eric Kennedy, Schroder’s marriage collapses and he is relegated to a satellite position in his daughter Meadow’s life so that his identity theft won’t be revealed. Throughout his fear runs a difficulty in remembering that his constructed life as Kennedy is a lie, as in lines such as “For a moment the groom believed...that there actually was such a place as Twelve Hills.” This delusion is subtly contrasted with his father’s halting German advice to Schroder that informs his decision to kidnap his daughter, which Schroder helpfully translates roughly as “I can definitely stuff my daughter in my trunk as I attempt to cross the Canadian border” instead of as poignant commentary on the Berlin Wall, as it was meant. The type of self-delusion that is taking place is clear, but since the narrator himself is not completely aware of it, it comes across as more convincing.
And here is where Gaige subtly concocts an anti-heroic Eric Kennedy who can never admit he is wrong and a guilt-torn, honest Schroder who fills up a page with “I let you down” repeated like Catholic school punishment lines. There are the blatant similarities to Humbert Humbert, but each parallel scene is qualified. Schroder meets his wife in a park, as opposed to Humbert on a park bench lusting over girls a third of his age. Both emotionally manipulate older women—the surprisingly well-developed April Almond in “Schroder,” who criticizes Schroder and the purposely undeveloped Charlotte Haze in “Lolita,” who merely fawns. This more honest, straightforward approach to a liar is well-made and appropriate given that the his grossest prevarication was solely about his nationality—a more sympathetic, less icky lie. The coup of the the book is reached when Schroder realizes that he is transferring his own insecurity about his identity upon his daughter, a conclusion that feels true and belated, yet is appreciated.
Another difference is that Gaige’s language is not frilly and suffocatingly allusive, and it instead flits between different types of language exercises that prevent the novel as a whole from becoming nauseatingly navel-gazing. Schroder inserts a humorous snippet of a play that he’s written about offering his wife a snack: “How about a pretzel? A fruitcake? Lamb with mint jelly? WHY IS EVERYTHING I OFFER YOU INSUFFICIENT?” Gaige also inserts snatches of German from Schroder’s past and pauses the narration in just the right moments to signpost upon which parts it is worth dwelling.
Gaige generally takes risks with these various writing exercises, and with the choice to organize the book into a short-chapter format, she creates a many-parted machine that does not become fractured given Schroder’s frequently all-consuming delusion that he is indeed Eric Kennedy. The direct allusions to Nabokov—Meadow wants to become a lepidopterist, a hobby of Nabokov; a nice complicator when a bartender on their road trip tells Meadow that “You shouldn’t trust anyone over the age of twelve. After twelve, it’s lies, lies, lies”—are similarly fractured and don’t constitute major themes in the story, but also don’t deny the book’s identity. With more allusions, the prose would become needlessly stilted; with fewer, it would sound ungrateful.
Admittedly, it is instinctual to comment about the differences and similarities between “Schroder” and “Lolita”—and furthermore, it’s a daunting task to break out of Nabokov’s imprisoning enchantment. But do not misunderstand. Gaige succeeds in making Schroder’s life story, of his father also “kidnapping” him away to America, not seem an illegitimate excuse for his crime, like the teenaged Humbert Humbert’s truncated love of Anabel Lee.
Adding a believable sense of shame, Gaige creates an endearing protagonist not only defined by his willingness to “tell the truth” in a statement to a jury. What makes Schroder alive is his vivid fear of actually admitting that he has a breach in his own identity much larger than the hole in the Berlin Wall through which he and his father cautiously slipped. Schroder’s apology seems sincere, and a crisis of identity can finally be identified and spoken about 50 years later instead transferred upon a 12-year-old girl. And thus, we have an unreliable narrator who transcends the haze of his crime.
—Staff writer Christine A. Hurd can be reached at email@example.com.
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