Seventy years before the release of Wally Lamb’s new novel, philosopher Theodor Adorno critiqued modern society’s “culture industry” – a system of corporations with significant market power, operating across radio, film, television, and print – for disseminating “sameness” and withering the individual’s ability to think independently. The culture industry tightened its grip on the consumer by seeming to offer something for everyone while selling the identical commodity to all.
On its surface, We Are Water is a socially progressive tale spanning events from the racially tense 1950s to the present-day “big gay wedding” of Annie Oh, a middle-aged “outsider artist” with hardscrabble roots. After moving to New York from Connecticut, Annie has divorced her husband of 27 years, psychologist Orion Oh. She is marrying Viveca, her wealthy Manhattan art dealer, and the book explores the impact of the impending nuptials on Annie, Orion and their three adult children.
The narrative resembles recent film and television dramas in which characters yield up secrets in succession, apparently plumbing new interpersonal depths. Each chapter presents one character’s perspective; the reader’s compassion is less elicited than demanded. The prose is made comfortably familiar through the volume of factual detail provided. We quickly learn what brands of coffee Annie and Orion drank as newlyweds, what type of perfume Viveca wears, what snack foods Orion has in his freezer. Yet even as the reader is immersed in the story’s material context, she becomes aware of a uniform flatness to the way the characters discuss their emotions. When Annie talks about Viveca, she says: “She loves me, and I love her. Trust her.” Orion tells his children about their mother: “She loves you guys. She loved me, too.” Annie breaks up with Orion using the formula: “I still love you, Orion … But I’m not in love with you any more.”
In lieu of emotional complexity, Lamb offers disclosure. Annie, it is revealed, physically abused her son Andrew, a military man who opposes her wedding on the grounds of his Christian beliefs. Annie is shown to have been sexually abused as a child by her cousin Kent, who in turn is depicted as a victim of childhood abuse. After unleashing his rage on Kent, the indirect cause of his own trauma, Andrew transforms into a bland guy who muses: “We are like water… we can be fluid, flexible…” In the emphasis placed on the trajectory from Kent to Annie to Andrew, all deeper individual difference is erased.
To keep the reader hooked, Lamb injects emergency. We read about allegations of sexual harassment, a violent assault, a burglary, a secret pregnancy, a broken engagement, two murders, flashbacks of a flood, memories of molestation and more. Though Lamb crafts scenes of great dramatic tension, one is offered little mental space to feel for the characters. The author painstakingly illustrates Kent’s awful childhood, but Kent himself collapses into the clinical boundaries of a sociopath. By contrast, the child-killer in the classic film M, about whom we know nothing, inspires empathy with an appeal to a universal human nature: “Who knows what it is like to be me?” Lamb does not allow such appeals, but incessantly prescribes the reader’s reactions.
The most egregious example of this is the link he enforces between Annie and her historical doppelganger, black “outsider artist” Josephus Jones. Jones was murdered on Annie’s property, and he literally haunts her. The connoisseur who found Jones is the same one who, decades later, discovers Annie. Annie’s post-wedding artwork Josephus’s Thread is explained to us by Orion: “I guess the point she’s making is that Joe Jones’ art not only led her to make her own, but that it also led her to being able to combat what happened during her childhood.” We Are Water embodies Adorno’s culture industry, whose consumer “must need no thoughts of his own… Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided.”
The reader is numbed. The endless platitudes served up by Lamb’s people promote passivity: “It is what it is”; “A life I didn’t choose chose me.” Annie marries a woman far more domineering than Orion, and does not articulate her discomfort with Viveca’s conspicuous consumption. Neither Annie nor Viveca seem troubled by the challenges of being gay in America. And though Josephus Jones was a black artist killed for expressing himself, no minority character in the book discusses race. The purely mechanical connection between Jones and Annie indicates that the book is no more about civil rights than Annie’s art is about real protest. No one in this novel resists. Everyone accepts, everyone is in therapy, everyone is taking anti-anxiety medication. The text’s profusion of brand-name goods, its echoes of blockbuster film, its uncritical embrace of pop psychology, all make one wonder whether it is fiction or, as in Adorno’s vision, an extended advertisement.
Aparna Sanyal is a writer living in Montreal.