Finely Wrought and Extraordinarily Painful

Ella Fox-Martens reviews Jakob Guanzon's new novel Abundance, due for release on March 2nd, 2021 through Graywolf Press

Finely Wrought and Extraordinarily Painful

Photo by Iqra Shahbaz

Abundance opens in a McDonald’s, as protagonist Henry calculates how much he can afford to spend on his son’s birthday dinner with an ‘internal, automatic arithmetic.’ The scene is small, but finely-wrought and extraordinarily painful. Henry washes himself in the bathroom, eyes up an attractive nearby mother with a mixture of desire and resentment, and plays the role of ‘Pa’ – as he does throughout the novel – with a grim desperation. He’s acutely aware of the gulf between the man and father he wants to be, and the one he is; the life he wants for his son, and the one he is saddled with. The two live in Henry’s truck, in an existence bordered and constrained by day-to-day survival. This claustrophobia is deftly mirrored in how Guanzon structures the novel, titling each chapter with the amount of money Henry has access to. It’s an effective framework device, effortlessly illustrating the tight, breathless anxiety of life below the poverty line.

Henry and Junior’s disastrous night is interspersed with memories of Henry’s adolescence, chafing under his strict Filipino father, ‘yet another bitter man of letters,’ and his doomed teenage romance with Junior’s mother Michelle. ‘Papa’ as Henry calls him, is the spine of the narrative – the ghost around which Henry inevitably orients himself. He judges every decision against what his father would have thought, alternately trying to make him proud or rebelling against imaginary disappointment. Henry takes on his father’s inability to express emotion, if not his love for learning, and his harsh, hyper-masculine parenting. In the end, as he forces Junior and Michelle to call him ‘Pa,’ Henry lets the ghost – and all its bitterness and rage – possess him.

It’s a bleak novel, with a bleak tone. Henry and the other characters are too exhausted to see beyond the next morning or the next meal. The tragic plot developments, when they come, are easily and perhaps purposefully foreseeable. Abundance is predictable, but this is not a weakness. You have heard this story before, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth telling. This is a narrative that has been played out – and is continuing to play out – countless times across working-class America.

The violent family blow-ups and trailer park setting could have easily drifted into ‘poverty porn’ territory, and even despite Guanzon’s empathy and consideration, there are moments that feel trite and clunky. Some of the character notes are occasionally too obvious and shallow for true depth – particularly with regards to Junior’s mother Michelle, who starts off recovering from bulimia in rehab, and ends up a snarling, monstrous ‘addict.’ This arc, and the somewhat bewildering leap from damaged teenager to caustic and emotionally-abusive adult, could have benefitted from a lighter touch. The same grace and consideration extended to Henry, in spite of his failures as a person and parent, must also be extended to Michelle. When she hurls slurs at Henry and coos to Junior that ‘Daddy’s a joke’ after coming home from a bender, she appears demonized.

When it comes to the actual interactions between Henry and Michelle, though, Abundance shines. Guanzon’s prose is surprising and dreamy, stuffed with longing and tenderness. Henry’s first and only relationship is imbued with a sense of infinite softness, and elegant, eloquent brevity. This beauty is made all the more effective for the despair and dirt that surrounds it. Henry’s love of Michelle’s ‘grey, fang-like teeth’ and ‘little tentacles of wet hair’ is honest and true; the blind adoration seeps through every sentence. If Henry’s frustration and anger towards his father is the spine, then his infatuation for Michelle and loyalty for their son is Abundance’s heart.

Henry is a man of immediacy; he believes that ‘all that had mattered, did matter, and could ever matter was right here,’ embodied in the love and safety of his child and girlfriend. For all the pity that Henry’s troubles might inspire, he isn’t wrong. To dismiss the joys, warmth and love in life – even lives that may seem bereft of these things from the outside – is a disservice. Abundance is valuable because Henry’s story, and all the countless stories that sound like his, is just as deserving of consideration as the middle and upper-middle class narratives that the contemporary literary world is constantly inundated with. Guanzon’s lyrical and respectful handling of a harsh reality is urgent and necessary, and lingers long after the sad – and sadly unsurprising – conclusion.

Ella Fox-Martens

is a Canadian-born, Australian/South African-raised essayist and poet. She has been published in Observer, Meanjin, The Rumpus, Westerly, Cordite Poetry Review and others. She lives in London.

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