APRIL 3, 2013
BEING CAUGHT in the paralyzing grip of loneliness is a bit like being suspended at the top of a Ferris wheel. Viewed from the ground, a distant perch far above all these annoying people appears liberating, but once up in the air the longing inverts. Just get me down, we think, dangling in the sky. In Woke Up Lonely, Fiona Maazel’s sweeping, achingly honest sophomore novel, she leads readers on a winding journey before returning them back to earth, safe and securely moored.
Woke Up Lonely chronicles the torrid relationship between Esme Haas and Thurlow Dan, just your average estranged ex-husband and wife — except that Thurlow is a cult leader and Esme a sleuthing mercenary. The Helix, founded on the very 21st-century mandate of curing loneliness (speed dating and confession sessions included), sits somewhere on the spectrum between the Branch Davidians and a Landmark Forum seminar. As its celebrated leader, adored by many, loved by none, Thurlow’s following is swelling to the tipping point of revolution. Esme is a steely, disguise-wearing FBI agent who has made a career out of serving as a buffer between her ex and the law. Divorced for a decade, they are forever bound together by their daughter Ida, whom Esme is raising alone. Due to Esme’s demanding job, mother and daughter rarely spend quality time together. Separately, all three pine for a family, together.
Were this a less ambitious novel, Maazel might simply explore this tangled relationship and call it a day. But Woke Up Lonely is wide in scope and precise in its vision, and so one family’s longing is amplified by a variety of characters who deal with different types of estrangement, proving just how varied the emotion of loneliness is. The longing these characters present quickly becomes ours, too.
With an outlandish plot that spans from North Korea to Virginia to Ohio, Woke Up Lonely finds its anchor in the heartbreakingly complex Esme. Even in her corny costumes with her prosthetic nose melting off her face, Esme is fierce. From Hua Mulan of the Chinese legend to Shakespeare’s Portia and Rosalind, Esme is the latest in a lineage of female characters who cross-dress to achieve what they can’t as themselves. Maazel blesses Esme with the quirk of lacking fingerprints: “she left no trace of herself wherever she went.” Like Portia, she cunningly assumes a false identity to protect the man she loves from danger — unbeknownst to him. Esme’s tough-yet-vulnerable duality is emblematic of how this novel, masquerading as saucy satire, is truly an earnest tale of family and love.
To base a book on something as amorphous as loneliness is a risk, but Maazel’s pitch-perfect humor helps balance the sentimentality of her subject. Besides, she’s planting in fertile ground: We are a culture that finds it normal to sleep with our smartphones. We G-chat into the night, while failing to connect in person. We have countless online algorithms for finding The One, yet love remains elusive. As a culture, we are overripe for this book, and when Thurlow Dan is addressing his followers, he’s also addressing a contemporary America:
[L]oneliness is changing our DNA. Wrecking our hormones and making us ill. Mentally, physically, spiritually. When I was a young man, I felt like if I didn’t connect with another human being in the next three seconds, I would die. Or that I was already dead and that my body didn’t know it. Sound extreme? I bet not. I was lonely by myself; I was lonely in a group. So let me ask you: how many of you feel disassociated from the people you love and who love you the most?
As relevant as these themes might be to the current zeitgeist, Maazel’s questions about the human condition are timeless: Why are the moments in which we’re supposed to feel most connected often the same ones we often feel most alone? Why is it easier to carry a torch for someone from thousands of miles away than to love them up close? These questions are poignant and well-articulated, but instead of dwelling on them, Maazel is busy riding the momentum of her story, dazzling readers with arresting images, like in this description of a young Esme: “Her fingernails were pastel. Creamy pink for the virgin bride. She wore white leather Keds bound tight. She was a fortress, a turret, and in those embrasure eyes were the guns of Navarone.” Even the few convoluted plot twists and moments with minor characters that feel a bit like an awkward Helix speed-dating event (all we want is to hang out with Thurlow and Esme) are easily forgiven; Maazel’s command of language makes it easy to drift from the bowels of Pyongyang back to the secret interior of Cincinnati.
Woke Up Lonely is both a mirror and magic looking glass, reflecting who we are and who we have the potential to become. But do not expect Maazel to provide a pat answer to the question of why such pervasive loneliness exists. It isn’t just the rise of Facebook or the breakdown of physical communities; we are lonely, her novel suggests, because we are human. Yet the very existence of this novel is a sort of answer. Woke Up Lonely is a book that understands who we are today, and a reminder of one of literature’s greatest gifts: a story that “gets” us and connects us to something beyond ourselves is a foolproof, albeit temporary, way to feel less alone.