Like F. Scott Fitzgerald's " The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Donald Antrim's seamless absurdities, Italo Calvino's "The Baron in the Trees" or David Lynch's "The Straight Story," Benjamin Parzybok's debut novel, "Couch" (Small Beer Press 280 pp., $16), hits on an improbable, even fantastic premise, and then rigorously hews to the logic that it generates, keeping it afloat (at times literally) to the end.
Suspension of disbelief almost becomes beside the point; the fun is in watching the author's dedication to his setup. And while purity of purpose needs to be maintained, there should be enough surprises to stave off boredom.
Instead of chronicling a life lived in reverse or shoving a hundred brothers into a room, Parzybok's "Couch" takes the perfect emblem of slackerdom, the titular piece of furniture, and puts it in the hands of three underemployed young men sharing an apartment in Portland, Ore. When the unit above them spouts a lease-breaking leak, they plan on going their separate ways, but attempts to donate or simply abandon the couch -- at Goodwill or on the curb -- get stymied. The longer they walk . . . the longer they walk, and the less capable they are of divesting themselves of their cargo. A chance encounter with an attractive journalist spurs them to delusions of grandeur, and they claim to be carrying the couch across the country "to fight hunger."
But the couch has other plans for them. When they try to head east, it gets mysteriously heavier. They gradually realize that their freewill doesn't stand a chance against the couch's inexorable, inscrutable power. It turns out that the three are meant to dispose of the couch -- just not in Portland, and their long voyage takes them to Ecuador and off the grid entirely.
Parallels to Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" are surely intentional but go unremarked. Though the couch is laden with symbolism, Parzybok wisely allows enough competing interpretations to flourish, so that they cancel each other out, and the thing remains an enigma to the end.
"Couch's" finely balanced heroic trio comprises big-boned computer programmer Thom, who occasionally thinks in code; con man-in-training Erik; and fragile weirdo Tree, a.k.a. "Dreamboy," whose visions are alternately frustrating and faith-restoring in their rigidity. Tree's spacey nature is nicely captured in his compulsion to craft tiny figures out of wire, but his dreams occasionally feel like an authorial cheat, another layer of predetermination, as if the godlike couch weren't enough.
Much more tangible is the central protagonist Thom, infamous in hacker circles for having e-mailed a Christmas card to fellow Microsoft employees that turned their computers into the equivalent of a thousand monkeys equipped with a thousand typewriters, on the road to creating "Hamlet." Though the company wound up buying the code from him, his fame and ability haven't translated into job security, and Parzybok nails the floating life and endless c.v. revisions of the jobless state:
"He opened up his website and thought about how to phrase his newly found freedom in a way that wouldn't read 'laid off.' 'Now available for freelance work! ;-)' he wrote, then deleted the idiotic smiley. Then deleted the entry altogether."
Thom occasionally thinks in code (for example: "SELECT*FROM reality_life WHERE EXISTS 'couch in pacific' "). This tendency culminates in a page-long combat sequence, beginning "function attack_method (bad_guys)," that melts the first-person shooter game paradigm into its unglamorous parts, a deconstruction that points up the grim nature of the melee at hand.
As their journey takes strange turns, Thom's bulletin-board buddies scour library stacks and the Internet's hive mind for possible explanations of the couch's provenance. An experiment in CIA mind control (via apathy-inducing fibers)? A cursed art project created by a RISD student? An alien device? A residuum from the Garden of Eden, Pandora's box itself, a "bewitched Trojan horse" given to the Romans?
In time-honored paranoid fashion, Parzybok releases these and other eyebrow-lifting notions into the novel's atmosphere, and wisely avoids pinning down the couch's source of power until close to the end.
The symbolic potential is given free play. "Couches and movement are antithetical by nature, and that's good, that's real good," says Theo, one of the many theorizers they meet on the road. "You've got antithetical working for you. So you're uprooting the sedentary, restationing the stationary, mobilizing the immobile. There's something to that, but you'll need to develop it more." (This gets nicely deflated by Theo offering Thom a beer.)
As the quest moves into its third act, some of the more confrontational scenes feel strangely slack, as if the shifting of gears into "action" mode didn't quite catch. But this portion of the novel, set in Ecuador, does contain one of the book's high points, a rant from Per, an aging Swedish expat who maintains that "the history that is written down is a hoax." He connects the dots, or appears to, between the world's flood legends, cartographical discrepancies, ancient technologies and cultural imperialism. Dates and facts roll off his tongue, gaining critical mass without ever quite cohering: "This is platinum, from the northwest coast of Ecuador, La Tolita. Several thousand years old, I don't know. The technology for melting and forming platinum was discovered in the 1850s -- just after the discovery of Antarctica!"
The spirit of Charles Portis glimmers here, and one is reminded of both the great ranter Dr. Reo Symes in "The Dog of the South" and the labyrinths of occult knowledge satirized in "Masters of Atlantis." Parzybok isn't as funny as Portis, but he does know how to entertain us -- or those of us susceptible to this kind of thing -- with the somehow endearing intricacies of certain fringe belief systems. And though I have no evidence that Parzybok is a Portis fan, while we're in the business of making connections (per Per), it's perhaps fitting to put the following two quotes side by side.
From Parzybok's "Couch":
"The cab driver pointed left. 'Izquierda.' Pointed right. 'Derecha.'
" 'Izquierda,' Thom repeated with the pointing. 'Derecha.' And then to himself, memorizing, izquierda, derecha, izquierda, rerecha. Why'd they have to make the language so damn complicated?"
From Portis' "Gringos" (1990):
" 'Izquierda!' he shouted at her, making a loop with a gnarled hand. '¡A la izquierda!' What a word. A truly sinister mouthful for so simple an idea as left."