A Review of David Duchovny’s “Miss Subways”
The Character Files
I once read a review of a Julian Lennon album where the reviewer flat out asserted that in no point during the review would there be mention of who Julian’s famous father was. I hope to do the same with this review of David Duchovny’s new novel (his third), though Duchovny doesn’t have a famous father, per se. He is known far better for acting in a particular conspiracy theory television show of the ’90s than he is as a novelist, of course. However, it should be said that Duchovny has some talent as a writer — he’s not merely someone who is parlaying his fame into another area of expertise. To that end, said novel, Miss Subways, shows some remarkable promise, though it does have its share of flaws.
The plot entails a woman named Emer who has a funny boyfriend named Con. Otherwise, Emer is your typical New Yorker who rides the subways, teaches kids at school (she plays a ukulele and has come up with a song about vowels to educate them in language), respects her father (who calls her Bill) and devours ice cream like anyone else. However, Con is being courted by Hollywood with his writing and earns the affections of a woman who is really a spider goddess. (Did I mention that the book is pegged as fantasy? No?) The only way to save his life, according to a dwarf who doubles as a doorman to Emer’s apartment building, is to make a deal with the Celtic gods who will spare him if Con never sees or thinks about him ever again. However, in Emer’s new life, she runs into Con on the subway, and things progress from there.
While much of the plot is coincidence, Miss Subways is really a novel about character. It practically marinades in it. Emer goes about her business in the book, teaching kids, making a crow her pet, running afoul of the headmaster, visiting her aging father, and playing Led Zeppelin on her beloved uke. It’s to Duchovny’s credit that he has created a winning character in Emer — who is maybe a tad too hysterically feminine, but otherwise is the sort of person you’ll want to hang out with for some 300 pages. Con, though a lesser character who disappears for sections of the book, is also likable. Buoyed by the rather silly premise, it’s simply these two lives and their everydayness that propels things forward. It’s the characters you’ll invest in, not necessarily the plot or story.
And that’s kind of the problem with Miss Subways. Just based on premise alone, the book doesn’t make very much sense. We don’t ever really know why the gods who populate this story take such an intense attraction to two seemingly ordinary people. It’s never really explained why Emer and Con are destined to be apart, though it is hinted that Emer takes the relationship for granted and the scheming behind their separation has something to do with that. But this aspect of the plot pretty much kicks in right away, so we never really see Emer and Con as a couple before love (or something else) tears them apart, to borrow a song title.
Granted, to be fair, we do see Emer and Con’s courtship as a couple as they get reacquainted with each other. Still, we never see how that has sustained itself into something more long term. There are hints and Polaroids that show they’ll grow into old age together, but the glue that would keep them together that long is never uncorked out of the bottle. To that end, I suppose that Miss Subways has some structural problems.
That all said, I rather enjoyed the book in a perverse way because it’s well written and the sense of ordinariness seemed, well, novel. Emer merely spends the bulk of the book living her life, as though she were a character in a literary novel, not some piece of pulp. Duchovny is a cataloguer of plainness, and seems to revile in it, merely using the fantastic as a backdrop. Maybe he learned a thing or two from that famous TV show that he was in? If yes, Duchovny is kind of like Stephen King in this novel. I’ve always found King to be less about the supernatural, and more about the day-to-day lives of everyday people who find themselves stuck in extraordinary situations. The thing is, here, Emer is supposed to have forgotten about her past life. That’s a part of the deal she strikes. However, she keeps on keeping on, even though her living circumstances change after she brokers the deal to save Con’s life.
I don’t really peek at other people’s reviews when I write my own, but, in stealing a cover pic from Goodreads, have seen that Duchovny is borrowing from other sources in telling this tale, making it a layer on top of other writer’s works that have come before. I suppose that many writers use this trick, but, in Duchovny’s hands, he has crafted what feels like a wholly original story. True, the book kind of meanders and then peters out entirely at the climax, as though he was unsure how to end this tale of the fantastic that is also service-like in its smallness. Still, I have to say that the book is not bad, especially considering his more famous day job. (How’s that going by the way? I don’t watch movies or TV anymore, so I have kind of fallen out of the loop.) Duchovny is no dilettante. He still has some ways to go and room to improve, but Miss Subways is an agreeable enough read and leaves one wondering what other caverns of the soul Duchovny has yet to uncover. You can’t really ask for much more than that.
David Duchovny’s Miss Subways was published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on May 1, 2018.
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