A Cult Classic: Plum & Jaggers by Susan Richards Shreve

Plum & Jaggers is a cult classic about comedy, though it is not a comedy. A sibling comedy troupe is born out of family history, in this case the survival of a terrorist attack.  The novel, which begins like a children’s book, morphs into a surreal fable about remoteness and tragedy.   The McWilliams children, Sam, Charlotte, Oliver, and Julia, are on a train to Rome in 1974 when a bomb explodes in the dining car, where their hippie parents are picking up lunch.  The children, especially seven-year-old Sam, the oldest, are  traumatized by the loss of their parents. Sam spends his childhood and much of his adulthood controlling and protecting his siblings.  He begins to write comedy as an adolescent, to entertain his friends at the reform school he is sentenced to for stealing materials to build a bomb shelter. Later,  he is expelled from a Quaker day school for writing plays instead of doing school work.

Before I go further, I must say that this is a very odd book.  Published in 2000 and marketed as an adult novel, it was reissued in 2013 in Nancy Pearl’s excellent Book Lust Rediscoveries series (published by Amazon).  Goodreads readers like it, but The New York Times slammed it:  my guess is that the reviewer didn’t know what it was.  Do I?  The first part, when the children move in with their grandparents, almost reads like a children’s book.  And then it is a distanced, surreal response to terrorism, when they are in their twenties and perform their comedy act, even opening for Second City.  The set is a dining room, with the family sitting around a table with two empty chairs for their absent parents, nicknamed Plum and Jaggers. There is also an unexploded pipe bomb underneath the table.

All the siblings have coping mechanisms, though they seem never to grow up:   Charlotte is an addicted reader, escaping through Anna Karenina; Oliver is the normal, popular guy who graduates from college and has a girlfriend; and Julia, a stubborn, self-willed free spirit, is happy working as a barista and actress, though she wonders why they all have to live together.

As adults, when they move to Chicago and perform at small comedy clubs, they are invited to open for Second City.  Sam asks what they think of their billing.

PLUM & JAGGERS: sibling comedy troupe—3 kids and a dog—Dysfunction meets hilarity. Join the ’90s. Remember your own childhood bliss.

“I think it’s amazing, Sam,” Charlotte said. “Amazing what you’ve done.”

“Thank you, Charlotte,” Sam said, a rare happiness building like fever, a lightness in the fetid summer air that was almost joy. “Joy.” What a lovely word, he thought, like bells. A pure sound undiminished by the thickness of the air. His team. His troupe. Plum & Jaggers on the lips of people as they left the theater.

In many ways, they are always dealing with terrorism: there is a bomb on the Metro, Sam corresponds with a woman who lost her husband and son during a bombing in Israel, and then a stalker threatens their comedy troupe.  And Sam can’t let them go.  Their relationship is so dysfunctional, but I like Sam, as do his siblings.  The comedy grows darker and darker–too dark.

Susan Richards Shreve writes in the preface, titled “To David Sedaris,”  that she was on a train to New York when she got the idea for the novel. But the sibling comedy troupe was inspired by an article she read about David Sedaris’s comedy act with his sister, Amy Sedaris, before he became famous.  In New York she  met with him and chatted to him about comedy, which grew out of “mainly delicious family stories, darkly funny, wicked, and generous. Quotidian life with all its exasperations, pratfalls, and missteps, its small and enormous hurts.”

Although Plum & Jaggers is not my favorite of Shreve’s books–that would be Queen of Hearts, which I wrote about here–I enjoyed it very much.  She is a graceful, thoughtful writer.  And I will read it again, as I do all her books.

A Lovely Summer Read: Susan Richards Shreve’s Plum & Jaggers

Plum & Jaggers Susan Richards ShreveI am not the only reader to discover the Nancy Pearl Book Lust Rediscoveries series, published by Amazon.

But you know what?  I’ve read remarkably little about this series at blogs.

If you love reprints of great out-of-print novels, among them Virago and NYRB, you’ll want to check out this series of reissued forgotten novels.  Each is selected by Nancy Pearl, an award-winning librarian and writer, and each was originally published between 1960 and 2000.

Susan Richards Shreve is one of my favorite writers, but somehow I missed out in 2000 on  Plum & Jaggers, her fascinating novel about four children whose lives are shattered by terrorism.

Shreve is one of those wonderful writers whose style is deceptively simple.  It never gets in the way of her spellbinding storytelling.  Shreve, the co-chair of the board of the PEN/Faulkner Foundation and  founder of the MFA program at George Mason University, has written both adult novels and children’s novels.  And because of her expertise at exploring both children’s and adults’ points of view, she writes a pitch-perfect tragicomedy about this disturbed  family.

Shreve unsentimentally yet movingly portrays the offbeat McWilliams children.  On a train to Rome in 1974, their parents,  hippie former Peace Corps volunteers and world travelers, leave Sam, Charlotte, Oliver, and Julia to go to the dining car to fetch lunch. A bomb goes off, and they are instantly killed.  The children survive, but, as you can imagine, there are severe psychological consequences.  Sam, age 7, the oldest, feels responsible for the others, wanting to keep them together and even insisting they live and work together e as adults.    He forms a comedy troupe called Plum & Jaggers after their parents’ nicknames.   As you can imagine, it is dark comedy.  And for a while it is a show on NBC.

The novel begins:

Sam McWilliams was the only member of Plum & Jaggers who remembered the afternoon of June 11 when the first two cars of the Expresso from Milan to Rome explode, killing everyone on board those cars except for a four-year-old French boy and a conductor.  Sam remembered exactly.  He was seven years old, eight in November.  Julia was too young for memory, sleeping in Sam’s arms, where their mother had put her when they left.

After the bomb goes off, Charlotte falls asleep, “a habit she would retain in emergencies for the rest of her life,” and Oliver crawls under the seat upside down.

Susan Richards Shreve

Susan Richards Shreve

The novel follows their lives from the ’70s through the ’90s. At first they live in Michigan with their beloved grandparents, until Sam is falsely accused of beating up a boy.  Then the family moves to Washington, D.C., ostensibly so Grandfather can pursue his freelance art career at the Smithsonian, but really to escape Sam’s bad reputatuon.  But trouble follows Sam: he is caught stealing a pipe and flashlight from a hardware store: he is building a bomb shelter under the garage.  Because of his previous record in Grand Rapids, Sam is put into a juvenile detention center.  Oddly enough, he has an excellent effect on the other boys.  He writes plays based on the boys’ family lives, and they discover their creative power by acting them out.

The younger McWilliams children are on the surface a little less troubled:  Charlotte can always escape into a book, Oliver is practical and also artistic, and Julia refuses to go to school (her grandmother homeschools her).

Sam, obsessed with the history of terrorism, begins to write dark comedies about their family.  Gradually they develop a following, and NBC picks up the show.   The set is always a dining room with two empty chairs at either end of the table for their missing parents and an unexploded bomb under the table.

But there is a price for fame, and Julia attracts a stalker.  When they gather at a small cafe, it is Olivier who points out that her extreme roles in the troupe are “a magnet for crazy people.”  Ironically, they are dealing with their family situation so honestly that it can attract negative attention.

“I worry about the line of safety we’re crossing,” Charlotte said.

Sam looked up from his notebooks.  “That’s the line we cross,” he said.  “That’s who we are.”

“We have to be careful, though,” Oliver said.  “This is television, not a small theater audience who will have come to see us because we’re Plum & Jaggers.”

“But we’ve hit a funny bone.”  Julia leaned against Oliver.  “I don’t think we should change the show completely.”

“We’re not changing it at all,” Sam said, getting up and putting on his coat.  “I know exactly what I’m doing.”

This small, perfect book actually gave me a chill of recognition, as though I perfectly understood the McWilliams family. I love these characters, and Shreve knows exactly when to distance us from them.  (She doesn’t want us to be a crying mess throughout the book.)   And so I will be searching for more of Shreve’s books.  And I will be rereading Plum & Jaggers  soonI’ve got the urge to reread it now, but have more or less promised to wait till next spring.  I can’t be too indulgent about reading the books I love over and over…