Robert Lopez’s latest novel-in-stories reads like a stream of conscious search for hope. A Better Class of People connects back with some of his characters from Good People from 2015, and the trilogy will be concluded with The Best People in 2024. All of the stories are first person narratives, told by a singular alienated narrator. The voice throughout A Better Class of People is hypnotic and rhythmic and often unreliable. Lopez has said that sound and energy are keys to his writing process. That’s where it all starts for him. And, you can hear the effect of this in every story of this collection. We’re on a ride with an impulsive voice and it’s uncertain where we’re going or where we’ve been here. Every other story is a subway interlude—you see this reflected by a train symbol above the table of contents. At times, the book is darkly funny and sometimes downright disturbing and tragic. There are even times the storyteller is potentially dangerous; he might or might not have a gun and often considers “shooting someone in the face.” Overall, the sound of the voice, like the electric currents of the subway, creates drama, intrigue, danger, and tension, and it pulls the reader through a strange, dystopian world that is both fascinating and unforgettable.
In the opening story of the collection, “Furloughs, or How to Stand in Traffic,” we meet the narrator as he heads out to stand in morning traffic. We assume he’s leaving some rehabilitation facility, possibly on medication, and as he notes: “I never stand in the same intersection twice in a row, which is something I won’t tell if they ask. I don’t need anyone figuring out what intersection I’m about to go stand in before I have a chance to stand there myself.” So many of these stories darkly circle around place in the world, try to set things straight, and figure out what to do with one’s time. As he says later on in “Furlough”: “I’m out there because everything has gone too far and someone has to put a stop to it.” The narrator is out protesting everything, trying to figure out what the hell has gone awry–he’s also seeking the elusive Esperanza, “who has been avoiding [me] of late.” Symbolically, the narrator seeks hope in a broken, spiraling world of incoherence. He’s asking questions, trying to sort things out, as things grow more and more confused. You sense that these stories are about the many pressing issues of our time: violence, dislocation, mental illness and exhaustion, harassment, immigration, and police brutality. And that all of these things are interconnected and fragmented by the narrative’s elusive search for a firm grasp on reality.
At times during the reading of A Better Class of People, I felt the echoes of Fuckhead from Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son. You occasionally don’t know whether to laugh or cry at his interactions with the world. In “What the Living Emit,” he notes about an appointment: “I can’t remember what this particular appointment was for, as I book a dozen appointments a week and they have to remind me why I’m there. Sometimes I expect a kidney transplant but it turns out I’m interviewing for a job. But I miss appointments, too, because I get lost or sidetracked by someone I’ve asked for directions…” There’s such dark humor at play here, as if you sent Bartleby’s “I prefer not to” out into the chaos of the modern world. Often, he seems to drift aimlessly, seeking to find peace from all the trauma and disappointments of life. The echoes reverberate from story to story. Lopez builds on repeated phrases and characters that return throughout the novel to keep continuity and connection throughout the collection.
In the last story of the collection, “Gone Beautiful,” there are haunting lines about a Help Wanted sign: “This is why I never go into stores that have a Help Wanted sign up in the window, because I don’t want to see something like this. Maybe certain people want to see something like this but they are one of two things and I’m neither.” I’m struck by the elusiveness here—is it not wanting help? Not feeling wanted? So much of the magic in this book is the wonderful circling of language. In this last story, the narrator describes his father’s suicide, after telling us that he keeps a list of who he believes to be dead. “He’d left a note and said he’d gone beautiful, which was true.” Gone beautiful. So many ways to read that phrase. Ironic? Heartfelt? Gone and done? All of the above? In a narrative where we’re constantly wondering what’s real or imagined, these lines ring with ambiguity and mystery. Throughout this final story, we learn that the narrator has been drawing stick figures on the wall: “How I pass the time is I read my books or I draw stick figures on the walls and floors. I draw stick figures in relation to other stick figures. Some stick figures are standing in traffic while others rush over to beat them senseless or usher them to safety.” As we conjure images of crude figures on the floors and walls, we’re also reminded about characters who stick with us, who make us question our place in the world and seek a better class of people to understand. Lopez’s book resounds with despair, confusion, and longing, and yet it presents a seeker’s voice, looking to plug on through traffic and train stops, and hopefully make better sense out of a world gone mad.
A Better Class of People
by Robert Lopez
Dzanc Books; 150 p.