By Laura Macomber
Everyone loves a good antihero. He or she is our disgraceful, literary doppelganger, a picaro so ignoble that, in simultaneously condemning and vicariously delighting in their exploits, readers are spiritually elevated. In The Convalescent (McSweeney’s), first-time novelist Jessica Anthony has generated her own modern-day picaro. She treats him with such heavy handedness, though, that instead of exacting derisive social commentary, Anthony creates a character so utterly lonely, so physically despicable and self-pitying, that his wry observations and forlorn intelligence are not enough to redeem him. Readers are provided not with a disgraceful doppelganger, but rather a sad and pathetic schlemiel, wholly not relatable. His actions are only enough to keep the reader’s attention until the final pages, when Anthony loses control of her narrative and refashions a version of The Metamorphosis that would make Kafka sit upright in his grave.
The Convalescent vacillates between the miserable existence of Rovar Pfliegman—sole heir to the Pfliegman dynasty, hirsute seller of meat, unwashed dweller of broken-down bus, wearer of Disneyland sweatshirt—and scenes of the medieval Hungarian origins of his forebears, a wretched, callous people who, in Rovar’s words, were “the worst sort of losers on the planet.” In the chapters detailing Rovar’s daily life, readers are treated to Rovar’s relationships (with Virginian meat-customers, with invisible friends, with a blade of grass), to Rovar’s frequent visits to Dr. Monica, a pediatrician who has befriended him (and who, as it turns out, is blessed with “large, appealing thighs”) and to Rovar’s individual moralizing (a mixture of bewildered hate-mongering and affecting personal insight—“I do not feel like a tight and efficient unit,” he says. “I am a messy conglomerate. Flotsam and jetsam. Bad art.”). In these scenes, Rovar is the only character portrayed with any rounded sense of humanness—funny, for he is repeatedly referred to by others as almost un-human—while the remainder of Anthony’s characters circle round him like flat, unlovable paper dolls. Mrs. Himmel, Dr. Monica’s receptionist, is pure hate; Adrian, her intern, pure brawn. Even Dr. Monica herself, Rovar’s love interest and apparent raison d’etre, has little of interest to contribute beyond reminding Rovar to drink lots of water (which he does) and to bathe (which he doesn’t).
In the chapters dedicated to the medieval roots of the Pfliegmanian line, there is a parallel love story, one that is, if less relevant, certainly more gratuitous: Szeretlek, a giant, oafish Pfliegman, falls for Lili, the local Hungarian leg-wrestling champion, whose Pfliegmanian origins remain unknown to her. As their star-crossed love affair unravels under the cover of greasy tents inhabited by bone-gnawing Pfliegmans, one can’t help but wonder what, exactly, this relationship has to do with the current predicament of loneliness suffered by Rovar Pfliegman. Only the ending yields the answer: nothing.
Anthony was the 2004 recipient of the Amanda Davis Highwire Fiction Award, a grant offered by the McSweeney’s publishing house that is also responsible for distributing her novel. And it is clear that Anthony rightly belongs to the Dave Eggars School of Outrageous Creativity that invested in her: The Convalescent is brimming with originality and imagination. A furry, diminutive butcher living out of a bus in Virginia? Unthought of! A lumpy Hungarian woman birthing the waters that will form the Black Sea? Unheard of! But what Anthony lacks within her delightful visual imagery and refreshingly unbeautiful characters is emotional consistency and depth. While she arranges the story as a sort of metamorphosis, aiming for an ending that will explode a shockwave of emotion from what has been established as a stringy modicum of feeling for a tiny, miserable man, the absurdity of the final scene fails to do much but leave one winded and confused. And though Anthony attempts to suggest otherwise, Rovar Pfliegman is no Gregor Samsa: his personal metamorphosis invites little pause for reflection and rather more head-scratching.
Yet even despite the raucous, unpalatable ending, the thing most difficult to believe wasn’t the kitschy recreation of medieval Hungary, or even Rovar’s unfathomable living conditions. It was that the wholesome, “magnanimous” Virginians of whom Rovar often speaks, who are responsible for maintaining his paltry lifestyle, would dare buy and consume the meat sold by a hairy, fetid man who lives out of a bus, and whose diseased skin is known to flake, from time to time, onto the outstretched, moneyed hands of his customers. In this shopping mall-ed, subdivision-ed setting that Anthony takes pains to evoke, these people would be buying their meat at a supermarket.