Mediocre on a good day
Author Jill Ciment’s fourth novel Heroic Measures reads much like something that could have been written by Don DeLillo in that nothing much really happens in terms of plot progression over the course of her slim volume’s 193 pages, but boy oh boy does a lot go on.
On the surface Ciment is telling the story of a childless elderly couple living in New York City who desperately want to sell their current elevatorless home in order to purchase more accessible living accommodations. Alex is an artist, Ruth is a retired schoolteacher, and they both have rather large FBI files thanks to a rebellious stint in their youth. They live alone save for their aging pet Dachshund named Dorothy.
As the novel opens, Dorothy has lost the use of her back legs and after a trip downtown to the animal hospital, the couple learns that their beloved pet requires an operation, and that even if they go through with it, she still may never fully recover use of her hindquarters.
Dorothy narrates the worst pieces of Heroic Measures as she relays her feelings of confusion, abandonment, and a fear of the death that she feels surrounds her on all sides. While Ciment does an admirable job getting in the head of her elderly subjects, she utterly fails in her attempts to ascribe human emotions and reasoning to an animal that has no concept of either, and ultimately Dorothy’s pieces serve as an unwelcome distraction to what otherwise is a subtly biting piece of fiction, that while at times sad, is also surprisingly humorous.
As Dorothy lies in the hospital awaiting her operation, a tanker truck is wedged sideways, stuck in the Midtown Tunnel, and all of New York is on high alert as the vehicle’s Middle Eastern driver has fled the scene. In the midst of all this chaos, and on the advice of their real estate agent, Alex and Ruth move forward with their plans to hold an open house in the hopes of selling their home.
It’s here where the novel begins to move in several different, yet equally fascinating directions. First, Ciment turns her eye towards the 24-hour news cycle as she questions the media’s role in propagating a culture of fear by way of irresponsible reporting. Silly poll questions like “Do you think terrorists do drugs?” are asked of viewers as reporters continue to speculate on the circumstances surrounding the tanker rather than provide substantiated facts to their viewers.
Then there’s the supposed terrorist himself. Not lost on the reader is the fact that Alex and Ruth were once considered persons of interest themselves. As the story moves forward, heightened tales of sightings and showdowns with the supposed fugitive are relayed by the media, casting him in a damning light before he’s ever had a chance to explain exactly what happened. All of the questionable reporting and character assassination eventually leads to a case of mass hypnosis, in which viewers are so amped up that they all actually believe that they see something that isn’t there.
In the end it all comes back to the elderly couple, their dog, and a decision they must make about who to sell their home to. They need to hurry though, because as the news changes, so does the state of their real estate. Are they routing for actual terrorist activity in the hopes of earning a bigger payday or against it in the hopes of safer living?
Thankfully Ciment doesn’t attempt to answer any of the questions she raises as she leaves the reader with quite a bit to mull over. Now if only that damn dog wasn’t in the way…
A novel by Jill Ciment