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Literary fairy dust, the exclamation point. The cheapest, sleaziest of the punctuation marks, unconscious of any subtleties or nuance. Generally the mark of choice for tweens and the emails of suspiciously chipper HR managers (We're cleaning out the office fridge this Wednesday!), the exclamation point is commonly eschewed by anyone committing serious literature to the page. For better or for worse, it is looked down upon, scorned as too brash, too base, too raucous for polite society.
But not for Jonathan Evison!
Evison loves exclamation points and he sprinkles them liberally throughout his new novel, This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! (the first of many, poked boldly there, right on the cover). I figure he must've bought them by the gross while outlining this tale of an elderly woman, a ghost and a cruise ship bound for Alaska. Saved them up for years. Then let 'em fly like he'd invented a machine gun that fires nothing but that little staccato !!!!!
"You love your job. Okay, maybe love is a bit strong. But prepping documents, writing summaries, filing motions, all of it agrees with you. Look at you, downtown girl: chic but pragmatic. Shopping at Frederick & Nelson! Lunching at the Continental Buffet!"
He writes half the book in the second person, which is an often maddening viewpoint (though not here). He exclaims broadly, with a game show host's enthusiasm that seems to candy-coat his words and buff them to a high, showroom sheen. He's pulling a very specific trick here, our Mr. Evison. Calling out darkness with a forced smile. Juggling heavy weights right in front of us (mourning, dying, Alzheimer's disease, suburban boredom), but doing it with a wink and a grin as he looks back brightly on the jumbled life of one Harriet Chance — 78, a widow, doggedly making plans to take a cruise to Alaska that was won in a raffle by her late husband Bernard almost two years before his death.
Harriet is delightful. Calls everyone "dear." Drinks a bit. Talks to the ghost of her dead husband. Half the book tracks her at 78 — an active woman still reeling from the loss of her husband, a matryoshka doll of layered secrets, guilt and regret — on a cruise with her troublesome daughter Caroline. These bits are played straight. No tricks; the voice subdued slightly (or at least stingy with the exclamation points) as it tells of Harriet's slightly loopy, occasionally tipsy, often funny progress through some rather rote plot points to carry the action.
The balance of the pages concern Harriet at every other age — as a child, a young legal assistant, a wife, a mother, through the '50s, the Mad Men '60s and the (not so) swingin' '70s and beyond. This is where Evison rolls out his Chuck Barris voice, the second-person narration, the exclamation points and the mugs to camera.
"Look around you, Harriet, at the sights and sounds of a Chance family Christmas! See the handsome Norway spruce festooned with tinsel and lights. Hear old Bing belting it out on the hi-fi ... You've much to be grateful for, Harriet. So why are you so disenchanted? Is it because you think you've wasted your life? Because you think the other you would be ashamed of you?"
Slowly, and with admirable, dark precision, Evison lays Harriet bare. The lies, the dodges, the secrets and frustrated desires. This is where the voice serves him. With a touch of snark and a lashing of perfectly affected irony, he flenses her to the bone and, somehow, seems kind in doing it. Comforting, even. That huckster's sing-song dripping with love, forgiveness and understanding — all of which have been in short supply during Harriet's life.
With his left hand Evison shows us every misstep and small triumph that has created the Harriet he sketches with his right — the one we walk beside on the lido deck of the Zuiderdam as it cruises northward. We learn things a perfect, sweet second (or a page, or a chapter) before the other characters do, revel briefly in the secretness of our own knowledge, then see it brought forth by Harriet, usually at the worst possible moment, usually with white wine on her breath, usually with devastating effect.
And beyond the voice-switching, the fourth-wall-breaking, the exclamation points and the shining gloss of the pitch-man's banter, it is Evison's timing — the slow burn and perfect pacing of the reveals — that makes This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! hang together. He understands that, ultimately, every game show host stands as straight man to the goofy humanity of the regular folk sharing his stage. And with Harriet Chance — poor, frustrated, flummoxed Harriet — Evison has found his ideal foil.