If the extraordinarily gifted writer Allegra Goodman is pursued by demons, they must be sprites of comedy rather than the harpies of despair, which haunt so many other novelists. Goodman is effervescent during a call to her home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She laughs frequently and heartily.
She seems as surprised and delighted as any common reader by the antics of Sharon Spiegelman, the plucky heroine of her second novel, Paradise Park. "Sharon is certainly a flawed character," Goodman admits during a serious moment, "but she's also a fascinating one. A very vibrant and very human one. She's someone I enjoyed spending time with." Many readers will enjoy spending time with Sharon, too.
Jilted on a trip to Hawaii by her 35-year-old graduate student boyfriend and folk-dancing partner, the 20-year-old Sharon sits in a hotel room surrounded by her few worldly possessions and wonders, "Why were all his harebrained schemes so important? I mean, what about my journey, and my odyssey?" And with that, she cuts her losses, sells her return ticket to the mainland and embarks on one of the most memorably comic spiritual quests in contemporary fiction.
This is the early 1970s, and Sharon is very much a child of the era. She goes through a back-to-the-land phase, growing pot with her Hawaiian boyfriend in the wilds of Molokai until his family summons the dutiful boy home. She finds Jesus and becomes born-again. When that doesn't quite work out, she enters a Tibetan monastery, where she eventually muses to herself, "You've achieved some real peacefulness and had some awesome spacious days, but that time has passed and it's too bad, 'cause you still need so much more teaching, but until you can get yourself and all your inner voices to shut up again, that isn't going to happen." She studies religion at the university. She helps out at a self-help seminar for couples. But somehow none of the revelations and epiphanies ever fully takes hold. As Goodman says, laughing, "Sharon is not always completely grounded in reality. She is in touch with her flighty, spiritual side."
Goodman, who grew up in Hawaii but was "a little girl in the 1970s," gets so much of the language and attitude of the era right, and uses it to such hilarious effect, that one can only marvel.
Much of the humor of Paradise Park arises from Sharon's loopily sincere way of thinking and expressing herself. According to Goodman, it was imagining—or hearing—Sharon's voice that triggered the book. "It was a really powerful voice, and I wanted to develop it and see how far I could go with it. I really enjoyed writing in the first person for an extended length of time. I often felt that she was sort of telling the story and I was writing it down. It's a wonderful, liberating feeling to let go like that."
Goodman adds, "In some very basic way, the book is a coming of age story. It's about somebody who really grows up. The lightning bolt, the road to Damascus experience is part of our culture and part of our therapeutic culture as well. You have to 'hit bottom,' you have to 'be inspired.' We have so many expressions for this. Sharon is trained to look for these things. But the reality is these experiences don't always take."
"You can have a transformative experience, but you still have the same problems. You wake up the next morning and you're still the same person," Goodman points out. "I was fascinated by the idea that there are some parts of your identity that stay the same no matter what. The book takes place over 20 years, but Sharon is still Sharon at the end of the book. She's really blossomed in many ways, but she's still Sharon. What changes and what stays the same and how those things work together, all of that really fascinated me."
Goodman says she was also interested in the genre of confessional writing, first introduced by St. Augustine in his Confessions. "The ironic thing is that Paradise Park is a confessional in an age where we've sort of gone past confessionals, in an age where the idea of sin isn't really very strong in someone like Sharon, who forgives herself for everything. Sharon has the form of the confessional, the memory, the journey, without the consequences that Augustine had. However, the intensity and the immediacy of her desire is still there, as it was with Augustine."
Eventually, Sharon begins exploring her Jewish heritage. She is drawn progressively toward stricter, traditional practices, ending up for a while in a closed community in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, where she meets and falls in love with a musician named Mikhail.
"I find the appeal of tradition to people in the modern world very interesting," Goodman says by way of explanation. "I enjoyed trying to show the attraction this incredibly traditional, closed, very, very structured way of life would have for somebody like Sharon. My hope is that by the time you get to that point in the book, you can see why she's running toward it, having played out this end game of all her choices and her many identities. But then again, she's still Sharon, she's still got that wild heart beating inside of her; she still needs to be her own woman."
And Sharon being Sharon, Paradise Park finally resolves itself in unexpected ways, which Goodman hopes will give the reader as much pleasure as it obviously gave her.
"The reader is always in my mind when I'm writing, Goodman says. "I don't visualize actual faces, but—this is going to sound really weird—to me the act of writing is like a performance. I wake up and I have my notes, and it's almost like going up in front of a room full of people and extemporizing a speech. That's what it was like to write this book. That's what it has been like for all of my books. I sit there with the reader in my imagination. There is a sort of improvisational thing that goes on where I'm laughing and I'm imagining the reader is laughing, if it's funny. Or I'm sitting there and feeling sad. Feeling it. Hearing the voice, seeing the hand motions, feeling the whole thing as if I'm acting out the book. That's very much the way this book is. It's really alive for me. If I don't have that living, tactile, improvisatory experience when I'm writing it, then it's not working."
In Paradise Park, it was definitely working.
Alden Mudge writes from Oakland, California.