Cost, Roxana Robinson’s tense novel about a disintegrating American family, begins in a mood of heightened sensitivity. Katherine, an elegant elderly woman visiting her adult daughter, caresses her combs and frets that she is losing her memory. Her daughter Julia roams the kitchen of her Maine beach house, “her movements hurried, slightly inept”, and when she opens a jar of mayonnaise she feels the glass threads give way beneath her hands.
These moments of awareness, the reader knows, must be interrupted — and soon Julia’s older son Steven arrives at the summer house bearing the news that younger son Jack is a heroin addict. Cost, a knowing portrait of a family in crisis, is notable for its refusal to offer easy answers. Julia’s father, a retired brain surgeon besieged by raging emotions, declares that rehab programs have terrible success rates for heroin addicts. An intervention/rehab expert (“found online”) arrives, but also announces that there is little chance of success. The climactic intervention, seen through the eyes of the miserable, pain-wracked Jack as well as the other family members, turns out to be a holy mess — several of the speeches only manage awkward sentimentality, Julia’s sister cringes when the leader uses the word “love”, and at the end it’s Julia, not her addict son Jack, who has an epiphany and breaks down crying.
This is a brutally honest story about a modern family, sharper than Jonathan Franzen’s Corrections and at times almost as bleak as Ken Kalfus’s A Disorder Peculiar to our Country. Cost also reaches back to one of the greatest family tragedies, Shakespeare’s King Lear, which it refers to in numerous details. At times, Cost reads like King Lear reflected in a broken mirror, mainly because Julia’s stubborn and arrogant father, a well-meaning tyrant prone to feeling insulted, resembles Shakespeare’s King to the depth of his being, and because the young brothers Steven and Jack pointedly recall Gloucester’s two sons, the earnest Edgar and the “bastard” Edmund. Numerous other design patterns in the novel recall the great play: a rivalry between three siblings (one of whom is completely absent), an unsteady walk on a beach, a “storm” in the shape of a boat adventure, a disguised child mistaken by his parents for a bum. It’s as a fragmented “Lear”, with all the kaleidoscopic interpretations this makes possible, that Cost moves farthest beyond the limits of realistic tragedy to achieve greater cosmic truth.
I haven’t found too many novels to get excited about lately, but Cost is a knockout, and I think Oprah Winfrey would do well to consider it for her next selection (no joke; it’s better than Corrections *and* A Million Little Pieces). I got a chance to ask Roxana Robinson a few questions via email recently, and did so with so much hasty enthusiasm that I think I oversold my questions about Shakespeare. I’ll leave those embarrassing sections of the conversation out, but our other exchanges were fascinating. It was a privilege to be able to read this book and quickly follow it up with my rapt inquiries, below:
Levi: Cost was my first encounter with your fiction. Can you tell me something about where the book is meant to fit into the wider context of your career?
Roxana: Cost turned out to be the third in a trilogy. The two earlier parts of it are This Is My Daughter and Sweetwater. I hadn’t really planned to do this, but when I finished Cost I realized that I had been exploring certain kinds of entitlement that I think are particularly American.
This Is My Daughter is about two divorced parents who marry and then try to create a “blended” family. At the time I wrote it — the early ’90s — it seemed to me that everyone around me was getting divorced and remarried, with an implacable disregard of the consequences, as though there would be no consequences, if they were smart enough, and responsible enough, and possibly affluent enough. That they deserved this, and the children would simply bend to their wishes.
It seems to me this notion is connected to the American sense of the landscape. We have always luxuriated in the knowledge that our continent is 3,000 miles across, and that if things get bad we can always move west and start over. The land is ours. So this idea of remarriage – as though all you needed, to make a success of it, was determination – seemed to me particularly misguided and particularly American.
The second book in the series is Sweetwater, and that also comes from a misguided sense of entitlement — the notion that, no matter what we do to it, the environment will always be whole, healthy, and generous to us. That, too, seems to relate to our notion of ownership — of our vast country and our enormous natural resources. To our sense that we deserve them, and that they will always be there, and they will always be ours, no matter what we do. Again there is the misguided notion that there will be no consequences to our actions.
The third book in the trilogy is Cost. Here the notion of entitlement started out as a smaller issue — the notion that, if you are responsible and focused, and hard-working, that there will come a time in your life when you can live it for yourself. When your children are launched, and your parents still healthy, then you can address the things in your own life that only concern you.
This, too, seems profoundly misguided, and as I wrote Cost it became clearer and clearer to me that the bonds of family are never loosened.
Levi: As a stark portrait of heroin addiction, your novel calls to mind a few articles I’ve read recently about the failure rate of rehab for serious drug addicts or alcoholics. There seems to be a growing realization that rehab simply does not work, even when carried out according to the highest standards. Did you intend this to be a theme in your novel? Do you think Amy Winehouse had it right? What do you think offers the best hope for a drug addict like Jack, or for the family of a drug addict like Jack?
Roxana: When I started the novel, I was unaware that it would be about heroin addiction. I thought it would be about the problems and complications of being an adult child, about how difficult it is to relate to your parents in the way you’d like.
When I learned that it would be about heroin addiction, I had to learn about a whole world with which I was unfamiliar.
I learned about the sad statistics, the sad prognosis of most addicts. All these were things I recorded, but this is not a point I set out to make. (I don’t know what Amy Winehouse says about it.) As a novelist, I think my task is to bear witness, not to offer a solution.
I think the best hope for a drug addict is a real sense of dedication to quitting. It must come from him. The best hope for a family is to learn to negotiate this awful terrain, offering both emotional support and love, but withholding any kind of enablement. It’s a terrible lesson to have to learn. As far as I can tell, there is no one correct treatment method that is always successful.
Levi: I believe it’s Wendell [Julia’s ex-husband] who defends the use of cliche in one of the book’s conversations. Does Wendell’s point express a literary principle of yours, and does the idea that we should embrace cliche point to any larger truths in this book?
Roxana: I think Wendell makes the point that cliches are always based on reality. As a writer, I detest cliches, and I wouldn’t at all suggest that we embrace them. But as a desperate mother, I’d suggest that Julia recognize that the reason her situation seems so commonplace is that humans all have the same capabilities, we share the same emotions and the same experiences. It doesn’t lessen her experience to realize that it’s shared by many many others. My point was more about the commonality of experience than about literature. Does this point to a larger truth? Yes, I’d like to think so.