We all have our personal favorite lengths. When it comes to movies, I like 90 minutes. Pop songs: three minutes. Popsicle: four inches. Books are an exception. Sometimes I want to work through a novel in an hour, and sometimes I want to be crushed like a defenseless worm under the weight of an 800-page tome. “Is this book the right length?” Is a question that most readers answer intuitively.
If a book feels too long, it’s clearly a bad thing, but saying that it feels too short could be confirmation, “It went over so fast, I couldn’t get enough!” Or maybe not. This is the enigma posed by Bethany Ball’s “The Pessimists,” a deliciously dazed tale of three couples in an affluent Connecticut suburb as they face the possible destruction of their marriages, their bodies, their minds, and the earth. At the center of her life is an unaccredited school run by a headmistress who wears long dresses and may have family ties to Nazis. This director, Agnes, takes a cryptic approach to pedagogy, and each of the novel’s parents develops a fixation on it – in some cases, one that blossoms in adoration; in others one that acidifies in repulsion.
At Agnes’ school, the children sit on delightful 19th century desks that were recovered from a schoolhouse in Alsace. Surrounded by slogans about mindfulness, they learn to stir butter and play with dolls that have no faces. Jewish holidays are not recognized. Vaccines and competitive sports and the consumption of gluten: all discouraged. At school there are no ADHD diagnoses, no dyslexia, “no learning difficulties of any kind”.
The novel begins on the eve of 2013, at a dutiful New Year’s Eve party between Virginia and Tripp Powers, who are the iciest couple. Tripp (I imagined him as Kurt Russell in Escape From New York with 20 percent fewer cheekbones, but that doesn’t mean you have to) has a secret prepper vein. Despite working in finance and enjoying a largely risk-free lifestyle, Tripp believes the apocalypse is approaching and wants nothing more than to jolt street killers, filter water through moss, and learn to manually pry open his garage door in the event of a massive electrical outage. His wife, Virginia, has her own secret: a lump in her breast that an oncologist calls “bad news.” Each half of the couple suffers privately and says nothing to each other. Tripp usually sleeps in the guest room.
The second couple are Gunter and Rachel. Gunter is Swede and can’t keep up his alcohol. He compares his wife to “a wet towel that is thrown away on the bathroom floor.” Exiled from the suburbs, Rachel nibbles on Xanax to calm her nerves. When she has doubts about Agnes’ school – a teacher criticizes her child for not being “cozy” enough – she calmly remembers that Ally Sheedy, Tori Spelling and “a member of an Irish mega-band” all sent their children there.
The third couple are Richard and Margot. Margot maintains her sanity by turning her fears into obsessive housework. Richard hates his job in finance and cuts the dinner steak “with a knife so sharp it could shave the hair of a child’s arm, which Richard was happy to demonstrate on his eldest son’s arm.”
And then there is Agnes, the most charismatic weirdo in the book. She runs her school with an iron fist, announcing proclamations against dairy products and conventional shampoo and “abstract concepts”. Her posture is erect and her powers are so magical that her hair changes color and length at random; She is first described as “a helmet of straight red hair” and then as “long, straight black hair”. This could be an editing mistake, but it kind of works as a trait of that raunchy character.
Agnes gives the parents strange tasks – not “Can you please bring some brownies to the cake sale?” But don’t lean on anything for a week; feel your feet; Brushing your teeth with your left hand. Margot finds the assigned tasks “strangely magical”. Rachel wished she had attended a school like the one her children go to every day. Gunter is the most skeptical of the school’s utopian aspirations. “School should be hated,” he complains. “How else are children supposed to learn to endure hateful things?”
Ball is a pleasure to read. Her sentences are quick knife turns; every satirical dart is a hit. She makes a meal out of her space cadet suburbs with her expensive German cars and organic apple juice, but lets her concerns go far: will my kids grow up okay? Will my life bring anything? Does my spouse secretly detest me? Do I have to worry about this lump in my chest? Is the thrill of adultery strong enough to outweigh the guilt? Suffering, Ball demonstrates, is universal and fears are often irrational. Just because a rich guy has no reason to fear running out of money doesn’t mean he won’t be consumed by the idea.
But something is wrong with the novel’s proportions. After all of Ball’s meticulous preparation – school, illness, survival training – the book seems to end in the middle of Act II, with the creepy Agnes fading into the background and the creepiness of school not reaching a particular climax. There is a hasty, violent scene that few of the questions asked at the beginning of the book answer so skillfully. As I neared the end, I was concerned about the thinning piece of unread pages in my right hand in the hope that “CONTINUED …” would be written in the end. Wanting much, much more at the end of 300 pages may indicate a structural problem, but it is also a compliment.