If one gave a young vagrant a disposable thirty-five millimeter camera, what developed after the youth spent a year on the roads of America could be used as inspiration for the experimental novel, Where I Stay. Andrew Zornoza fills the pages with eloquent detail of the passing scenery a hitchhiker takes in during his journey on the road, leaving the reader with crisp images of destitution.
Unfortunately, the novel also takes on the worst characteristic of pictures--flatness--while neglecting to take on the most important aspects of images, emotion and expression that exhibit clues about the characters’ personalities. Where I Stay’s lack of character definition and emotion prevents the reader from genuinely connecting with the narrator. This sort of alienation is the worst mistake a piece of fiction can make.
For example, one truck driver who picks up our nameless narrator “speaks in long sentences, drawn-out American words mixed with quickly uttered Spanish,” yet the reader never gets to learn what those sentences are. It’s in instances like this Zornoza misses opportunities to inject the characters, and in turn the book, with depth.
The most glaring missed opportunity is the lack of depth in the narrator. There are many more things the narrator lacks besides his name. Most obvious in even a cursory reading of Where I Stay is the narrator’s voice is incongruent to what his character is supposed to be, a young man, possibly no older than 20 who scribbles random notes on scraps of paper between tokes of joints and decorates his body with guitar string. Consider the construction of the following metaphor:
“At the football stadium, cheerleaders practice. Their glossy tights shine amidst the overwhelming green Astroturf like the sides of crashed spaceships.”
It’s quite hard to imagine a youth who was left behind by college bound friends wrote this down during a time when he was sleeping in cornfields and dodging horny old men on the side of highways. Overly complex sentences like these that constantly break down the wall of illusion between the writer and the reader.
Even more troubling, the narrator never describes any of his emotions during his entire ordeal on the road or his feelings about the apparition like memories he has of his lost sister. We learn in 1982 his sister tried killing herself. With “a bottle of aspirin in one hand and a lithium in the other” she told the narrator, ‘“There are no sheets, the pillows are made of glass.” Still, the narrator leaves her in that state to answer the phone.
It makes one question whether the narrator nonchalance was due to the fact that his disconnect from his own emotions made him fail to completely process what was happening, even though by the description of his sister’s state it’s pretty obvious something ominous is happening. On a deeper level one could wonder if the narrator’s inaction could be because Zornoza wasn’t adept at transitioning from that sentence to the suicide attempt scene. At the end of it all, one can’t be sure either way.
Half the fun of writing fiction is pretending to be someone else. What’s more tragic than the highway happenstances in Where I Stay is the fact that Zornoza never gets into the skin of his characters to make this book believable. Where I Stay’s experimental format lends itself to quick punchy sentences that could leave readers wanting more. Sadly, Zornoza fails to use that to his advantage.