- Prospero’s Dilemma
University of Nevada Press
208 Pages; Print, $26.00
In Act 4 of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, the ousted duke and sorcerer Prospero is thrown from his revere at the remembrance of Caliban’s plot against him, an echo of his brother’s usurpation that originally exiled him to the magical island. When the young noble Ferdinand, who is now engaged to Prospero’s daughter, Miranda, takes notice of his distress, Prospero is quick to reassure him:
You do look, my son, in a moved sort,As if you were dismayed: be cheerful, sir.Our revels now are ended. These our actors,As I foretold you, were all spirits andAre melted into air, into thin air;And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,The solemn temples, the great globe itself,Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuffAs dreams are made on, and our little lifeIs rounded with a sleep.
This scene marks a choice: in returning to his rightful place as Duke of Milan, Prospero will have to give up his magic. In the final Act, Prospero relinquishes his charms, his books, his spells, and we are told, will dutifully take up his responsibilities in a land perhaps less magical than that which he has known—“Our revels now have ended.”
Lawrence Coates’s novel The Goodbye House evokes this dilemma—to stay in the fantasy or accept the hard reality and strike out to make a new, though perhaps diminished, life. However, rather than being set in Renaissance-era Mediterranean, the story unfolds in the California Bay Area just after the dot com crash of the early 2000s. The novel opens with two epigraphs from The Tempest, one of which is perhaps the most famous line from the play:
We are such stuffAs dreams are made on
Though the play itself occupies only a subplot in this family drama as Katherine Watson’s son Carter prepares to act in a high-school theater production, the themes of exile, revenge and faded dreams conjure a similar melancholy magic that binds together the stories of the Watson family and their friends, lovers and enemies. The title itself suggests, at once, permanence and transience, like Prospero’s island. Katherine and her son have moved back to her childhood home to live with her father, Henry, after her husband has devastated their finances with poor investments. The home, dubbed Peaceable Isle by Pearl Harbor veteran Henry, suggests respite, a safe harbor. The opening scene of the novel is a flashback of five year-old Katherine poised on the roof in Henry’s protective presence. “Her father stood beside her, and she felt utterly safe as they all watched the blimp meander to the north.” But this was before her mother’s early death, before her brothers grow up and move away, before her father gets prostate cancer, before her own marriage bursts along with the dot com bubble. It is an illusion that cannot last. If there is such a thing as unsentimental nostalgia, Coates finds it here.
The strength of The Goodbye House lies in its evocation of place. Anyone who has spent any time in the Bay Area will instantly recognize the titular house on Catesby Street, one of any number of 1950s tract houses in developments that once signaled peace after wartime, but are being squeezed out by Silicon Valley moguls making room for their McMansions. Just outside of these cramped little neighborhoods, crumbling apartment complexes, a rundown high school, even the ubiquitous California strip mall are captured by Coates’s clever blend of history and detail. “McCarthy Ranch was an open-air shopping center nestled alongside a large freeway interchange. It had once been a pear orchard, and now the large stores had facades that recalled the outlines of rustic barns, with gambrel roofs sheathed in corrugated metal.”
In many ways, San Jose and its surroundings are more fully realized than some of the...