I’ve been sitting on my arc of Nicole Wolverton’s debut, The Trajectory of Dreams, for months now, wanting to wait and read it closer to the publication date.
You know that saying “good things come to those who wait”? Yeah.
What a terrific read this was. The first 20 or 30 pages take a bit of time in terms of settling into the story, but once you realize that the narrator, Lela White, isn’t quite right in the head and you adjust your mind to that, things zip along quite nicely while you watch her just disintegrate and spiral completely out of control.
Lela is a sleep lab technician who believes she has a “mission” to monitor astronauts’ sleep patterns. Traumatized by the explosion of a shuttle when she was a child, she now firmly believes that her work will help prevent another shuttle disaster like the explosion of The Constitution (standing in for the Challenger here). This “mission” involves sneaking into the homes of future shuttle astronauts and monitoring their sleeping patterns. Lela believes that the astronauts must be “good sleepers”, and she is completely convinced that this is tied to both the safety of shuttle launches and the astronauts’ peace of mind—they must be good sleepers so that if the worst happens, they’ll never realize it because they’re asleep.
Needless to say…that’s a little disturbed.
Aside from the breaking and entering and watching people sleep, which is just creepy and tapped into one of my biggest paranoia issues thankyouverymuch, Lela seemingly manages to function normally otherwise—she works at the sleep lab, volunteers at the library, and no one appears to realize that there’s anything wrong with her—she comes across to her co-workers as diligent, if introverted. Of course, they don’t know about her “mission”, and there’s the slight problem that Lela’s perceptions are not skewed right—it’s possible that her co-workers certainly do realize she’s at least odd, but it’s just impossible to know. As things progress, we begin to get some inkling that at least two people, the librarian she volunteers for and the janitor at the sleep clinic, have at least some idea that Lela is somehow fragile. The reader, however, gets a better idea of just how screwed up Lela is because the story is told through her distorted vision: her preparations to assassinate any astronaut whose sleeping habits don’t live up to her standards, her conversations with her cat, Nike, who she truly believes is communicating with her, her odd ways of relating to people, and her obsession with the space program and the astronauts. So when she encounters a Russian cosmonaut, Zory, on loan to the U.S. Space program for the next shuttle launch, we know this is potentially problematic for both of them, especially when she freaks out because he seems very interested in her and she believes any involvement with him will jeopardize her “mission”.
Lela is quite drawn to Zory precisely because of who he is—he’s both her catnip and her kryptonite and their developing relationship makes reality tilt another few degrees. As their relationship progresses, she gets more and more frantic about completing her “mission”. Added to this mix is an annoying coworker, Trina, who unceremoniously decides to temporarily move in with Lela after a tornado damages her apartment. Trina reminds Lela a little too much of her mother, and Lela’s relationship with her mother was, shall we say, fraught. Plus there is Max, a lonely janitor from the sleep clinic with whom Lela has been exchanging sex for information—his reaction to being replaced by the attractive cosmonaut isn’t exactly appropriate either.
This is a complex novel, to be sure. Lela is not just an unreliable narrator, she’s a woman who is thisclose to a complete psychotic break. What she tells us may be the truth, it may be hallucination, it may be her spinning things, it may be lies, but it will always be suspect because it’s her perception of the truth, and Lela’s truth is looking at reality in the rearview mirror. The layering here is impressive as we see Lela’s mind go in one direction while she’s thinking, then shift into a more socially acceptable gear and she talks herself into the correct response or behavior for a given situation. So while the plot is actually quite linear, there’s some jumping around as Lela experiences flashbacks to the shuttle explosion that appears to have started this, to fights with her mother, to memories of going to the library as a child, to a current hallucination, to a somewhat normal conversation with Mrs. Gerhardt where she says and does one thing while thinking another. It all blends together to present a chilling portrait of a truly broken woman.
In some ways, I found reading this a paradox. On the one hand, I was fascinated by Lela’s mental disorders and became absorbed in experiencing the narrative through her eyes. But I also found this rather painful to read—and sad. Because Lela feels very much like she has to be alone, except she doesn’t, really. She has a positive relationship with Mrs. Gerhardt, the librarian. Mrs. Gerhardt has known Lela since she was a child, and knew her father, and while she’s quite elderly, she has definitely formed a close bond with Lela. Their relationship is a beacon of hope for Lela—Mrs. Gerhardt seems to keep Lela from spinning completely out of control; she may not exactly understand the extent to which Lela’s mind has tilted, but she knows her well and is obviously fond of her. I found it sad that she couldn’t really do more to help Lela, but it was also quite realistic.
So let me tell you what I think Nicole Wolverton has done exceptionally well here. She’s absolutely captured Lela’s tortured mind, and done so in language that is somehow highly poetic at times, yet totally accessible. The other characters—Zory, Trina, Mrs. Gerhardt, Max, and even Nike the cat—are masterfully created. One of the most difficult things to do as a writer is to give your readers a true sense of a character through the eyes of someone whose perceptions are so distorted. That takes a great deal of skill, to craft so many layers so successfully.
She also does an excellent job of slowly ratcheting up the suspense. The whole time I was reading, I kept hoping that Lela was going to snap out of all of this, but I knew she wasn’t going to because she couldn’t. But I kept hoping anyway. At its core, this book is a psychological thriller, and it’s a damned good one.
Most important, I think, is that she leaves the reader asking some pretty important questions—about the toll a national tragedy takes on people, and the bigger one of how on earth does someone get to this point without someone noticing and getting her some help? There are clues here that Lela has been disturbed since she was a child, that her problems are possibly even inherited from her mother (although our only knowledge of Lela’s mother is through Lela herself, so that knowledge is untrustworthy) yet her father clearly shielded her. Mrs. Gerhardt obviously suspects that Lela needs looking after, yet makes no effort to do anything other than talk to her when she seems agitated and suggest that she become more friendly with Trina. Part of that might be because there’s nothing she can do—she is not Lela’s parent or next-of-kin or legal guardian. Lela is an adult, and she needs help, but she’s obviously not going to see it that way, so she’s not going to take herself to get it and there is no one who can make her. It’s a Catch-22, and it made me angry at her father for not facing up to his reality. And it really made me think about how stigmatized mental health issues are in America—that we’d rather hide and protect someone who we know has a problem than admit there’s one and get that person the assistance they need.
In a nutshell, keep your eye on Nicole Wolverton–she’s going places, I think–and get yourself a copy of this book. It’s really, really hard to put down.
Ms. Wolverton very graciously consented to a brief email interview with me, in which she gave me her answer to how someone gets to Lela’s point without getting help—and she answered a few other questions as well:
Lela is a really fascinating character—so complicated, so layered, so insane. Was it as much fun to write her character as I suspect it was? Or was it difficult to put yourself inside her head?
A little of both, really! At first it was really difficult to think like Lela. She’s so rational, but her reality is so removed from my own. What helped was the research I did into Lela’s particular mental disorder. Being able to work within very specific parameters of what she believes, why she believes it, and what her goals are helped a lot. And then it got really fun! I think most of us have a little bit of Lela in us–that part that smiles at a co-worker while secretly thinking that he’s a horrible person. But you’re not going to spaz out and attack your co-worker physically, right? With Lela, you just never know–she might–and that’s what made writing her a good time. And I just realized how completely psycho that makes me sound. I guess that’s the hazard of writing a book like The Trajectory of Dreams!
The narrative really plays with the idea of perceived reality: Lela is clearly disturbed to the reader, but her co-workers and other associates don’t see her this way at all—to them she appears competent, focused on her work at the sleep lab, intensely private and introverted. Or so it appears to the reader. But Max obviously suspects something, and Mrs. Gerhardt seems to hint that she knows Lela has issues. Yet neither of them is very proactive about getting her any kind of help. Is their lack of action because they’re afraid, or because they know there’s really nothing the law will allow them to do?
As a reader, you never really know if anything is real or imagined because Lela is the epitome of an unreliable narrator. In my head, though, both Max and Mrs. Gerhardt do know something isn’t quite right but come to it quite differently. Mrs. Gerhardt is an incredibly perceptive person and thinks of herself as Lela’s protector of sorts (but also as someone who protects others from Lela). She’s known Lela since she was a kid and knew Lela’s father fairly well (and he may well have dropped hints to her over the years). She’s essentially a surrogate mother to Lela, especially since Mrs. Gerhardt never had kids of her own. Mrs. Gerhardt may strongly suspect there something going on with Lela, but there’s no proof precisely because Lela is so good at playing outwardly normal (well, normal-ish). Without proof, people are very reticent to do anything. It’s human nature to want to give people space, privacy. It’s exactly why you see those neighbors on the news who, after the guy next door has been exposed as a serial killer, say things like “I always knew there was something strange about him.”
With Max, it’s different because he’s lonely. He’s a man who hasn’t had a lot of success with women, and especially not anyone he puts on a pedestal, as he does Lela. Max basically ignores anything that might lead to the end of his relationship with Lela (and regular sex)…until he can’t anymore. By the time he’s willing to recognize it, it’s really too late to do anything about. His reasoning is less complicated than Mrs. Gerhardt’s but no less compelling for him.
Following up on that, Zory has a completely different outlook on what he describes as madness. It seemed to me you were trying to make a point about how Americans view mental disorders and psychological problems as some sort of weakness to be hidden. Can you elaborate on that?
Americans really do feel embarrassed by mental illness, as though we somehow have supernatural control over our health. Part of the American character is the idea that if you want it bad enough, you can be anything you want. When it comes to psychological problems, there’s almost an attitude that if you’re depressed, it’s because you haven’t worked hard enough not to be depressed. Not working hard enough equates to laziness, and laziness is a sin and a weakness. We hide our weaknesses. So many insurance plans don’t include full mental health coverage because we’re taught to think we don’t need it. The whole attitude has really become a problem–people who need help either aren’t getting it or can’t get access to it. Maybe it’s not necessarily an American issue, but it certainly seems that way sometimes.
Lela’s obsession with the space shuttle program’s safety is partially the result of witnessing a traumatic shuttle explosion as a child. The failed launch is obviously based on the Challenger explosion, but you’ve changed the name of the shuttle. Was that out of respect for the astronauts lost on that mission and their families?
Absolutely. The last thing I want to do is capitalize on a tragedy. The shuttle program and the astronauts have played such an important part in our culture, and for those of us in a certain age bracket, seeing the Challenger explosion is something we’ll never forget. For Lela, seeing a shuttle explosion haunted her, and it’s easy to relate to that. Her memory of that moment is based on my memory. It was so strange to hear the shuttle program was being retired, and writing Trajectory was almost cathartic because of the research I did–seeing Dr. Guy Bluford, Jr. talk about being in the shuttle and on the International Space Station was fascinating.
My copy of this book was generously provided by the publisher for review and promotional purposes.