Paul Schmidtberger’s first novel, Design Flaws of the Human Condition, came to my attention via my friend and neighbor who is also the author’s aunt. Thanks, Janice, for the heads up.
Design Flaws is constructed in the manner of an 18th-19th century farce complete with our omniscient author manipulating the characters into improbable coincidences in full view of us dear readers. We get witty, Fielding-like chapter headings (“In which Iris Unwisely Disregards the Captain’s Advice to Sit Back, Relax, and Enjoy the Flight,” for example), that not only comment on the action but help maintain the tongue-in-cheek tone that permeates even the most serious moments in the novel. The characters are mid-to-upper-mid Manhattan professionals–lawyers, academics, marketeers–who are thrown together during mutual crises in their romantic and/or economic lives.
And the place where the omnipotent Schmitberger throws them together is an anger management class. (So detailed is the knowledge of the class, one can’t help but speculate how dear author did his research.)
The pace is quick throughout, the writing crisp, humorous and appropriate to the whole, even when introducing backstory, which is the downfall so many otherwise fine books: “What Iris and Jeremy hadn’t known as they arrived at Macy’s was that minutes earlier, yet another New Yorker had chosen the Hummel figurine display on the sixth floor as the perfect spot for his long-overdue nervous breakdown.” It seems that we’re always surfing a frothy moment and exuberantly anticipating the next turn of the wave. It’s a comedy of manners among sophisticated folks whom we like and cheer for.
Now, perhaps to carry my surfing analogy too far, we do get dumped off our boards from time to time. There are anachronisms of both technology and attitude. We see mention of, for example, a walkman as a contemporary device when we all know it is now an extinct species, particularly among NYC sophisticates. Of course, I can’t blame Schmidtberger for that one. Considering how long it takes from the time authors sit down at that first blank page (or screen) till they finally see the book in print can be technological sea changes later. Some copywriter should have caught the problem. Ditto with a couple of instances of points of view on homosexuality. At some fairly recent point in time (even in Manhattan) it might have been appropriate to write “the rumors were true–Professor Connelly was gay. Stage direction: gasp.” or to have a classmate of Connelly’s in the anger management group be a bit disturbed by his homosexuality. By the publishing date of 2007, however, you might find responses like that in Kansas, but not up and down the East Coast. Furthermore, throughout the rest of the book, gay pairings are treated as a normal fact of life, so the shock is as inappropriate to the novel’s world as it is to the culture it depicts. As a final arrow in the heart of our imaginary incompetent copyreader, I submit this “sentence.” … Iris’s the overall impression Iris was left with was … “–clearly a revision whose original version didn’t quite get deleted. The poor authors can’t do every damn thing themselves.
In addition to the deft execution of form and language, there is significant substance of theme and thought throughout,which fleshes out the whole work nicely, keeps it from cocktail party shallowness. Plenty of discussion about reality and illusion. Lots of dreams–a tricky device which Schmidtberger integrates well into the book’s emotional and action life. There’s a fascinating conceit of an illusory bird in a cage which is too long and tricky to recount here, but which operates as a nice commentary on the characters’ situations. Thus does the novel live up to its title, demonstrating how difficult it is to live orderly and rational lives when even the best of us is so riddled with contradictions and imperfections.
So, we have in Design Flaws extremely satisfying and meaningful read–up until the last pages. It seems to me that after the anger management class reunion Design Flaw loses dramatic tension, and I missed the energy of what had gone before. Instead of a satisfying conclusion, or even an open-ended “ending,” we get an overlong denouement that feels like a tagged on short story involving the same characters (or most of them. One or two major ones, like Jeremy, disappear entirely) but which is artistically (even if factually) unrelated to the rest of the book. That’s probably just me, though. You might love the neat little revenge plots that I found irrelevant.
Whether you agree with my take or not, I can pretty much guarantee that the fun, frolic, wit, and downright humanness of these real and sympathetic characters will carry you through the book and stay with you for days after you finish. Thanks again, Janice, and be sure to feed me the next one your nephew turns out.