Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Decisions, Decisions: A Stranger on the Planet by Adam Schwartz

A Stranger on the Planet
by Adam Schwartz
Soho Press
336 pages
Reviewed by Curtis Edmonds

Writing is about making decisions.  You start writing by making the decision to write—the decision to turn off that rerun of House and fire up Microsoft Word and open up a new file.  Every word that you take out and every word that you leave in is a decision, whether it’s conscious or not.  If you’re writing something simple or humble—a grocery list, a Facebook update, a book review—you’re not making that many decisions, and maybe they don’t matter that much.  If you’re writing a novel, you have a lot more decisions to make, and at least some of them, like deciding what sort of narrator to use, are important.

The advantage of using the third-person narrator is that you get to use your own voice and your own style.  If you take the first-person route, you can still bring your voice and your style to bear, but it has to go through the filter of the character.  If you have an ordinary, everyday sort of character, that’s fine, but you will have to have him use ordinary, everyday sort of language, at least if you want him to sound believable.  If you don’t want to use ordinary, everyday language—if your prose tends towards the literary or the fantastic—then you have to use an unconventional narrator, something like an autistic teenager, or a space alien, or a psychopathic clown.  That’s a lot of work, too, because you have to do a lot to not only get inside that character but to infuse his thought patterns with the sort of literary quality you need to pull off the project.

What Adam Schwartz has done in A Stranger on the Planet is something fairly common, but you wouldn’t be too much out of line if you called it cheating, at least a little bit.  If you (as a writer) want to use your own voice and style, but still want the personal touch of a first-person narrator, then the simplest way to accomplish that is to make your first-person narrator a writer.  That way you get the best of both worlds.  You get to tell your story from a perspective that makes sense, but you get to add in all the descriptive stuff and the asides and the explanations and all that good stuff.  It is a nice trick, and not that hard to pull off, except for one tiny thing.

You see (or maybe you don’t) the problem with making your first-person narrator a writer is that now you’re stuck writing about a writer.

This is a two-part problem.  The first part is that what writers do is inherently not very interesting.  Take me, for instance.  I am writing this (right now!) on my laptop, which is sitting on a white plastic IKEA stand.  It’s a little after ten in the evening, and I am going to have to get up in a minute and check on my daughter in the next room, who is bawling because she kicked her covers off and you don’t really care about any of this, and I don’t blame you one bit.  Writing is a solitary pursuit for a reason.

The second problem is a bit trickier to write about, because it involves (unfair) generalizations about who writers are and what writers do.  Setting aside for a moment the vast number of writers who are warm, personable and loving, there are (you have to admit this) some of us who don’t exactly have the whole personal-relationship thing down cold.  And Seth Shapiro, the main character and narrator of A Stranger on the Planet, is one of those people.  We meet Seth as an awkward New Jersey teenager, dealing with a prickly father, a shrewish stepmother, and a flighty, voluble, needy mother.  He has rotten relationships with them, as well as with his introverted younger brother and a twin sister who is going through her own adolescent struggles.  Seth has a bad hand to play in the family department, and he doesn’t play it all that well.

The novel follows Seth as he goes to college and graduate school and has disastrous relationships with women and mentors, and as he goes into teaching and has a failed marriage.  If this all sounds vaguely depressing, it is.  A Stranger on the Planet is not that much more than a catalogue of bad relationships told from the perspective of a deeply alienated and troubled character.  The story arc coincides too closely with Seth’s maturity, and to the extent that there is redemption, it only comes after Seth’s put-upon and resentful mother dies, which is more than a bit self-serving.

What redeems A Stranger on the Planet is the writing, which is detailed, insightful, and intricate.  As a writer, Seth is (and again, this is a bit of a stereotype) driven by self-doubt and angst.  If Schwartz ever had those feelings, they are unwarranted.  He is talented and deft, all the more so when writing about loss, heartbreak and secrets.  And if all Seth’s relationships are failures, they are failures with interesting, fully realized characters with their own sorrows and cares.

Writing, as I said, is about decisions, and I can quarrel with a few of the decisions that Schwartz has made here but not with the overall quality and excellence of the work.  If you make the decision to purchase A Stranger on the Planet, that would be a good decision as well.

Curtis Edmonds is a writer and critic living in New Jersey. He is seeking representation for a new novel.  You can follow him on Twitter at @Curtis_Edmonds


  1. Great review - love the guest post from the esteemed CDE on The Quivering Pen. Sounds like an interesting book!

    1. Do you want my copy? E-mail me an address ( and I'll shoot it to you.