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The Mass Media

Book Review: A Crazy Little Fruit Called Love

Lemon, the debut novel from playwright Lawrence Krauser, is in essence a simple love story. It re-tells that age-old romance: boy loses girl, boy finds love in attractive citrus fruit, and boy goes spiraling off into a world of heart-breaking self-delusion.

It is a silly and sad little book; or at least it should be just that. Somehow, it also happens to be a wise and poetic, gorgeously written literary gem. Go figure.

The sole blurb to adorn the back of the dust-jacket reads: “The story of one’s possession”. Sounds cryptic, but it’s as good a summation as any, and that word “possession” is pretty revealing, actually. It points to a concept that plays a big part in the Modern Western idea of love; a double-sided concept which sees the love-object as a possession, and also as something that possesses us, that dictates our thoughts and motives.

Krauser plays with this double meaning of “possession” throughout his novel. Unable to maintain a relationship with a sentient, and hence self-defined, human being, Wendell (our socially handicapped protagonist) takes the idea of the “love-object” to its literal conclusion and falls in love with a fruit. The fact that it is specifically a lemon does not really matter much: the point is about the desire for ownership, the drive for idealization and transference of emotional needs onto a object that because it has no will of its own can be shaped into the perfect companion. Lemon is on one level a comment on the neuroses that are latent components of the definition of love in our culture.

Okay, admittedly, that’s pretty heavy stuff. It doesn’t come across as heavy in the novel though, thanks to Krauser’s generous sense of humor. Long sections of the book are laugh-out-loud-and-slap-those-knees-while-your-at-it hilarious.

Krauser’s abilities as a playwright (he has authored five plays to date, including Honeymoon In Dealey Plaza and Horrible Child) shine through in his dialogue, which sparkles with Oscar Wilde-like wit. Though perhaps the best comparison would be to another Irish playwright: Samuel Beckett. Lemon shares Beckett’s sense of a world in which tragedy becomes fused with farce and the absurd is revealed at the heart of the deepest human isolation.

Krauser’s style is by turns poetic and telegraphic, and often both at once. He has a way with unique metaphors and an eye for odd details. More importantly, he has a talent for making his images clear in the reader’s mind.

Although a large part of the thrill in reading Lemon lies in the author’s eloquent use of language and turns of speech (“The soul of valor but the peg-leg of passion” is just one such gem), its narrative is just as engaging and surprising. Krauser’s situations range from the Kafkaesque (a scene in a police station bristles with ambiguous, immanent terror) to the burlesque (when Wendell visits his parents for dinner, the scene reads like a clip from a sit-com written by Ionesco, or at least Monty Python). The novel can also be startlingly lyrical: the image of a helium balloon, loose and making its way towards Wendell as the bewitched passengers part to let it pass, is simple in design and lovely in execution.

The characters that inhabit Lemon are interesting for their flaws and quirks, particularly Wendell himself, who is both heart-breaking and laughable, ridiculous and real. Krauser creates sympathy in the reader through these characters; he gets us to really care about this absurd relationship. In the process, he makes us recognize the absurdity in our own relationships.

Overall, Lemon reveals an originality of voice and story. There isn’t much out there that is like it. Krauser has ingested the best of what literature has offered in the past century, and he uses it to show us something that is all his own.

Case in point: Wendell is at dinner with folks. He has just sent a lemon slice shooting up into the chandelier, dislodging a droplet that falls into a bowl of spaghetti sauce, spattering his parents with marinara. Krauser writes: “And in the crags of shimmering light, a wet bright wanderer twigged, shooting color through a jagged cloud. Pluck! Replace. Lick. You taste of high light places. Sit. Thing. What is a thing? That which I have a word for. That which is Out There. Inanimate entity. Crux.”

There is the Joycean Modernist, with his love of wordplay and subjectivity, observing the Postmodern situation, with its interjection of the incongruous and absurd; it’s an alluring mixture that pervades the general tone of the novel. Lemon is at once more playful and accessible than most Modernist literature, and more grounded in the personal and psychological than the majority of Postmodern novels. It is heartfelt, funny, original and a bit of a small wonder to behold.

Krauser’s style, a non-discriminating mixture of highbrow and lowbrow, is capable of achieving moments of rich comedy and often of brilliant insight.

Granted, it has its drawbacks as well. One minor complaint is that Lemon, like many contemporary works that share Lemon’s world-view (including David Foster Wallace’s masterpiece Infinite Jest), fails to provide a convincing conclusion. It unravels towards the end and just sort of trails off. Unfortunately, this comes off more like a frustrated attempt at finality than as a technique for challenging reader expectations. But I could be wrong.

Regardless, Lemon is saved by the sheer inventiveness of what unfolds between the first page and the last, and it makes a valid argument for the idea that the journey is more important than the destination.

Elegant, droll, and a supremely refreshing change from the tired old ideas that make up what is usually marketed as contemporary literature, Lemon is like a cool gin and tonic, served very dry with just a twist of…well, you know what I mean.