Book Review: All the Houses
Austin novelist Karen Olsson mines the world of Washington, D.C., in the Eighties to explores memory, loss, and desire
Reviewed by Melanie Haupt, Fri., Oct. 16, 2015
All the Housesby Karen Olsson
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 416 pp., $27
Helen Atherton, a thirtysomething single woman with a mild to moderate case of failure-to-launch syndrome, is spinning her wheels in Hollywood, trying to sell a script while failing to fend off crippling depression. When her father, a former bureaucrat with the National Security Council, has a heart attack and subsequent surgery, she returns home to Washington, D.C., to care for him and, in the process, attempts to unlock the mystery of her father via his involvement with the Iran-Contra scandal.
Karen Olsson, whose previous novel, Waterloo, was a paean to a version of Austin long faded in the rearview mirror (or perhaps buried under new condo construction), spins another hyperlocal narrative, this time in the befuddling streets of our nation's capital. Just as in her debut, politics is the through line that binds the narrative, this time through the interminable hearings that served to sniff out who knew what about extralegal trading of arms in both the Middle East and Nicaragua. It's been a long time since any of us have thought about Oliver North or Edwin Meese, but Olsson uses them as a fulcrum to pry into the lives of a family torn apart by the machinations of ambitious power brokers.
Olsson's wonky fiction isn't for everyone, especially those who may be fatigued by ponderous stories of middle-class white folks. But Helen's ambivalence and curiosity about her father's ruined career renders her a sort of perverse Bob Woodward who has too much at stake to be snooping into the shadowy corners of controversy. Like Waterloo, All the Houses trades in memory, loss, and the desire to mine a past for answers in hopes of igniting the present with some meaning while also figuring place as a major influence on the characters' psyches.
Olsson takes the title of the novel from Franz Kafka's Diaries, 1910–1923, in which he reflects on how his city and its routines has stripped him of his defenses. "Already, what protected me seemed to dissolve here in the city," he writes, the populace numbed, ultimately left to reach feebly to one another across a chasm of time and too much history, perhaps never to connect. This, in Olsson's telling, is the tragedy of Washington, D.C., written on the scattered, isolated members of one family.
Karen Olsson will appear at the session "Big City Binds" with Benjamin Markovits Sun., Oct. 18, 1pm, in Capitol Extension Rm. E2.010, 1100 Congress.