[Note: We've simultaneously published a video interview with Mona Simpson at the LA Times Festival of Books]
CHILDREN ARE forever trying to unlock the codes and secrets of the adult world, and, before they know it, they are grown up and those secrets start revealing themselves unbidden. For Miles Adler-Hart, the adolescent narrator of Mona Simpson’s newest novel, Casebook, maturation comes fast when his mother falls in love with a man who Miles suspects is not what he says he is.
In trying to decipher the behavior of this new boyfriend, Miles is always one step ahead of his brilliant mathematician mother. Of course, he has the advantage of not being in love with the man, an unassuming, animal-loving, divorced fellow named Eli Lee, whose hair, Miles notes, “stuck up on top like an artichoke gone to flower.”
But Miles’s feelings are complicated, too. Eli quickly becomes a new father figure, even though his visits are irregular. (He works in DC, and Miles’s family lives in Santa Monica.) Miles wants to love him and does love him. But the boy’s affection is always competing with being pulled by his overwhelming concern for his mother, and the entire family.
As Miles assumes, for the first time, a grown-up, worldly-wise responsibility for his family’s well being, he becomes an amateur sleuth. It’s a role he takes seriously. He taps into phone lines. He hides under beds and always has an ear to the door of the adults’ world. Miles has sleuthed his entire life: at first, he tells himself, just to be forewarned of everyday decisions that could affect his social status at school — such as whether or not his mother will let him watch Survivor like the other kids. He soon learns that unwanted knowledge comes with the territory.
Miles’s mom (“the Mims”) and dad an attorney-turned-screenwriter, have split up. Their life together — mother, father, Miles, and his younger twin sisters (“Boop One” and “Boop Two,” as he designates them) — had been happy, as far as Miles knew. Of course he resents the Boops as generously as only an elder sibling can, but weren’t they the perfect family? What happened? His parents loved each other, didn’t they?
The details of the divorce are hazy and unsettling to Miles. Who has left whom, anyway? Miles’s mother is brilliant and plain (“nice enough looking for a smart woman,” is how Miles puts it); his father is less brilliant but successful and handsome. Shortly after the separation of his parents, his father starts dating a beautiful woman who had once caused a quarrel between him and the Mims. Then the Mims starts dating. She falls for another mathematician and former running buddy, Eli. Miles had heard his parents arguing about this guy, too.
So, who left whom? Was the Mims, a math genius, unable to make marriage work? Was his handsome father missing something? Where lies the fault that cracked the family?
If anyone can find out, it’s Miles. He is a spy, or at least an astute observer, by nature. “I was a snoop, but a peculiar kind,” he declares in the novel’s opening sentence. “I only discovered what I most didn’t want to know.”
Miles is an extraordinary character — exceptionally intuitive, observant, feeling, and a tad creepy, like any good snoop. As the details of the lives around him come into clearer focus, Miles sees more, and so his point of view becomes more pertinent, more sad, more hopeful, and more impactful than that of boys who have not yet assumed the weighty mantle of protector.
As his spying leads him into deeper and more intricate knowledge of adult relationships, Miles starts to better comprehend the framework of his family. He wants to make sure it is okay, that its structure is sound, that his mother’s fluctuations won’t damage it; and, especially, that his mother’s attachment to Eli won’t destroy it. By listening in on conversations between his mother and Eli, Miles starts to trace all the little inaccuracies that his mother is too blind to see, and he gets to know his mother better through her insecurities, her self-sacrificing generosity, her worries over him and the Boops, and her deep, gnawing passion for Eli, who has lighted her up in a way Miles has never seen.
In his quest for information, Miles enlists his best friend, Hector, whose parents are also divorced, and for a while Hector surpasses Miles in curiosity and suspicion. To document their adventures, the boys make a comic book, featuring themselves as superheroes. As superheroes, it’s safe for them to work out the adult mysteries they may not be ready to understand.
Together the boys watch for changes in the Eli situation. They keep track of every potential deception. Their curiosity, their sense of foreboding, give the novel its remarkable atmosphere. Sometimes, Casebook recalls the feeling of those Sunday nights when you’re a kid in school and the week is about to start. It’s not that you hate school, or that life is so bad. But you feel the presence of something looming — not only the coming week, but also the week after that; then the months, and the years. You don’t believe you’ll ever grow up, and you also don’t want to grow up. Like Donna Tartt (and her recent novel, The Goldfinch), Simpson has a gift for re-creating the unique psychological landscape of the adolescent. Casebook also reminded me of a particularly poignant passage in James Baldwin’s story “Sonny’s Blues,” in which the narrator remembers that fragile state before adulthood:
There they sit, in chairs all around the living room, and the night is creeping up outside, but nobody knows it yet. You can see the darkness growing against the window-panes and you hear the street noises every now and again […] but it’s real quiet in the room. For a moment nobody’s talking, but every face looks darkening, like the sky outside. […] Everyone is looking at something a child can’t see. For a minute they’ve forgotten the children. […] Maybe there’s a kid, quiet and big-eyed, curled up in a big chair in the corner. The silence, the darkness coming, and the darkness in the faces frightens the child obscurely. He hopes that the hand which strokes his forehead will never stop — will never die. He hopes that there will never come a time when the old folks won’t be sitting around the living room, talking about where they’ve come from, and what they’ve seen, and what’s happened to them […].
But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will remember the children and they won’t talk any more that day. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he’s moved just a little closer to that darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It’s what they’ve come from. It’s what they endure. The child knows that they won’t talk any more because if he knows too much about what’s happened to them, he’ll know too much too soon, about what’s going to happen to him.
With their intensive study of the mature psyche, Miles and Hector are soon monitoring the heartaches and difficulties in the lives of their parents and their immediate circle: they worry about one father’s loneliness, a mother’s relationship with an unreliable entity known as Surferdude. But also life goes on and gets more complicated. Before they know it, they’re enduring the things they were scared of; they’re growing up.
Miles and Hector’s surveillance of Eli and the Mims intensifies, and they get help from Ben Orion, a professional private eye. By the time they figure out what is going on with Eli (which takes most of the book), they’re much closer to adulthood than they were at the start. Miles, ever observant, marks the change:
“You guys look different again,” Ben said. […] When he first met us, we’d worn shorts. California kids stay bare legged for years. Then overnight, they start wearing jeans. It happens around the time you switch from baths to showers. Boop Two still wore shorts. But one day soon she’d come out of her room and it would be over. Forever.
Miles and Hector operate in two spheres: there’s family life, over which they have little control until they begin to unwrap its secrets, and there’s school life, where they show burgeoning entrepreneurship. They run an illegal soup-selling business out of their lockers, stocking up on cheap supplies from a Mexican grocery store. Expanding their business, they join FLAGBTU (Federation of Lesbians and Gays, Bi-sexual, Transgender and Undecided). Though heterosexual, Hector and Miles suffer no embarrassment from being part of the group, and, for Miles, it’s a way to test his father’s Hollywood liberal open-mindedness. They also try out their own brand of vigilante justice when they start relocating unwanted pets, yet another business venture. The boys are in the throes of figuring out the moral codes that’ll be their baselines. You are what you habitually do, the Mims writes on her family blackboard of revolving sayings and quotes. So, then, what should you habitually do? Or, more importantly, how do you make sure that you can forge a productive, valuable life out of what you do?
Casebook looks into other little family ecosystems living in tandem with Miles’s. But Simpson doesn’t waste actions: any move by a single character reverberates through the world for everyone else. Just as in Anywhere but Here, Simpson’s central, complicated relationship of parent and child is both a motif and a window into bared hearts. The Adler-Hart family is broken. Miles can’t go back to what he considered to be a whole — a whole life — once he’s seen that a piece was always missing.
But, as the Mims scrawls on her blackboard (quoting from Ian Stewart’s Letters to a Young Mathematician): YOU MUST SEARCH FOR SOME COMMON FEATURE THAT DOES NOT CHANGE WHEN YOU CHANGE THE ARRANGEMENT: AN INVARIANT. For Miles, the invariant is search itself. He can figure out how to take the things that happen to him and make them not just endurable, but also redemptive; he can, by taking care of others, be a superhero inside whatever lines might be drawn around him.