It begins with the Cloud--a gigantic gray cloud that surreally hangs over the backyard of the Hart family and brings a spell of unrelenting and “indestructible” snow. “Each individual flake had hit the ground and failed to melt away,” the teenaged narrator Wilson observes, “It refused to vanish; it wanted to make its presence felt.” In the face of a mysterious and silent calamity like nonstop snow, deplorable things happen: uninsurable property damage, unemployment, infrastructure collapse. And people start thinking about their lives and their relationships with their nearest and dearest. That’s also bad.
Superficially, The Day The Cloud Stood Still is a nuclear family drama--the banal account of the still more banal decline of the teenaged Wilson and his mildly antipatico parents--that unfolds as a spell of uncommonly bad weather sends them into a downward spiral of alcohol-fuelled financial destitution, musculoskeletal injury and mutual loathing. Contrary to Tolstoy’s cliché, it’s all pretty standard--a well-crafted specimen of a novelistic sub-genre best explained as capitalizing on our profound emotional dissatisfaction with subprime mortgages, Fed policy, and the real estate market in general. Think Richard Yates’ Revolutionary Road, but poorer and without all the weird Francophilia. At the beginning, Wilson lives in a working-class two-income household with a dissatisfied, protective mother and a passive-aggressive father. As the novel and the storm progress, both parents lose their jobs, the father breaks his leg, and all hope gradually erodes. It isn’t that you can’t go home again; it’s that home sometimes jumps up for no reason and punches you in the face.
The greatest works of classical existentialist literature are represented by two key storylines--that which is expected but doesn’t show up, and that which shows up and stays way too long. The Day The Cloud Stood Still invites obvious parallels to both. The general plot echoes the poker-faced so-real-it’s-not detail of Albert Camus’ The Plague--also another large-scale disaster that engulfs a geographic community and penetrates into all aspects of everyday life. Yet the emotional core of Mr. Trotti’s work is drawn more from Waiting for Godot, whose Vladimir and Estragon compose essentially the same unhappy family as the Harts: people bound together in mutual aggravation and primal need as they wait. The Day The Cloud Stood Still, incidentally, also has a lot of waiting: there’s waiting inside the house for the Cloud to leave, waiting in hospital rooms after Wilson’s father falls off the roof, waiting to sell their house at a crushing loss, waiting to leave town. Wilson remarks, “My days had morphed into one long, continuous event.” Like the Camusian Plague, the Cloud is fetishized so aggressively--its mystical “deep, sharp color” scrutinized by national news media descending on Wilson’s small backwater town--that it must be code for something; possibly, one speculates, some other unending storm, and so on.
Mr. Trotti specializes in a special kind of low-grade misery, made bearable by a relatively upbeat assumption that deep down we’re all sorry sons of bitches and kind of had it coming. The comparatively positive social experiences in The Day The Cloud Stood Still--scattered periods of intimacy between Wilson and his parents, for example--are blighted by a kind of blameless ugly mean-spiritedness, the kind that you associate with long stretches of dingy highway, terrible roadside salads, people watching Montel. Wilson’s father, for example, shows an unseemly eagerness to bond with his son when he hears that Wilson has seen a fatal accident caused by the storm. Wilson confesses, “Never saw him like this, so curious, so empty and in need of something to fill him up”--a maintenance worker falling on his chainsaw being just the thing. Even the quasi-mystical arrival of the Cloud is cause for casual injustices: “Boys positioned themselves against the smaller girls, boxing them out of a good seat.” In point of fact, Mr. Trotti is at his most polished as a cynical observer of the selfish underlying pettiness of life. As the danger of the storm becomes more apparent, Wilson’s main emotion is merely that of relief. He explains, “This time it wasn’t my fault. In a way, death and this thing had gotten me off the hook. My actions were hidden within the darkness and confusion.”
It’s one thing to feel the visceral immediacy of Mr. Trotti’s writing; it’s another to express exactly why it works. He resists the usual urge to overwhelm us with poetry. Rather, in keeping with its general aesthetic of brutal realism, The Day The Cloud Stood Still is dotted with the devastating platitudes of therapists and kindergarten teachers. “The nice weather allows us to be whoever we want to be, like play time as a child,” Mrs. Hart declares in one toe-curling moment, “The sun is the audience in a grand game of make believe.” Such jarring vocabulary conveys with awful immediacy the sense of a self-aware stasis. In the middle of his family’s ordeal, Wilson contemplates his mother’s misery with a refreshing artless honesty: “Had her expectations of happiness dropped so low? Had life sucked out all the joy? Both of us had taken a piece from her, chipped away each day to the point that her life was work, clean, cook and repeat.” The book’s most complex and gory realities are expressed deftly in the everyday tropes of TV shrinks and books you find at malls:
[Mom] had no doubt fallen in love with another man, a younger, mythological image of my father. He was big and healthy, full of charm and self-confidence. …Mom had been sold a bill of goods and now with me as the result of their marriage she couldn’t refund it. Her expectations hadn’t been met. This sense of unspoken regret bounced off every corner of the house. It grew with every small paycheck, served as a reminder of what the man of the house could have been.
Wilson’s depiction of his father is distressingly pitch-perfect in its melodramatic register, which falls somewhere between Celebrity Rehab and Hemingway:
Dad internalized his feelings. He was able to get out of the house and go to work. As the snowfall strengthened, he drank more. Each drink he finished, each belch he let out, reminded me of the dad that he wasn’t. The one that never played catch with me. It was irrelevant that we didn’t have a big enough yard. It was the thought, or lack thereof, that mattered most to me, and least to him.
It’s not graceful--nor is it meant to be. In the rarified world of show-don’t-tell craftsmanship, this family purgatory would have been revealed slowly through an evolving tissue of surly conversations, facial tics, hand gestures and smoke signals. Yet there is no question that Mr. Trotti’s version is more emotionally pure. His cloying seriousness is perhaps the best visualization of how things really go down in the harsh greyness of the Harts’ world, where all culture has been reduced to tired self-dramatization. Left to their own devices, Wilson and his mother put on their best clothes and pretend to be--what else?--famous actors at the Oscars (“It’s great to be here. I’m wearing a suit from a world famous Italian designer. He’s blind in one eye and wears an eye patch.”). When Wilson’s father spouts gems like “Hope is made up. Don’t exist, at least not in this town,” and “No good comes of kids fucking around with grown up shit,” it’s clearly something he learned from watching some kind of discipline-and-punish vehicle set in the Wild West and starring Peter Fonda or Tommy Lee Jones. There’s an ongoing sense in The Day The Cloud Stood Still that the observable social world is, Fight Club-style, a copy of a copy of a copy. When describing the chainsaw accident to his father, Wilson describes it as “like a movie that wasn’t cued up properly”; when he watches the storm being covered on national television, the news anchor seems indescribably superior to the local reporters for no clear reason--“He was good at his job. He enunciated every syllable, took his time. He put our local news to shame as he reported the few known facts about the storm.”
Mr. Trotti as a writer is intriguing because he isn’t above conveying this linguistic impoverishment. Perhaps his most courageous innovation is to depict with unswerving honesty the comforting phrases with which we use to make the humiliation of everyday life bearable (or at least less messy). Real people actually live real-time in phrases taken from broadcast television, and that’s okay. The Day The Cloud Stood Still is about the masks that we put on and how stupid they are--not from any notion of inner truth, but because we’re not fooling anyone. In the dead-end universe of Mr. Trotti’s characters, it’s best not to pretend.
In the opening pages of Ten Thousand Years of Nonlinear History, Manuel de Landa puts forward the theory that the same “historical” themes are replicated across all aspects of reality--“mountains, animals and plants, human languages, social institutions.” Put another way, all stuff operates on certain principles, the same principles. Thus, for example, the formation of igneous rocks (e.g. granite) out of different magma components with different thresholds of crystallization is an incident of “meshwork,” or “self-consistent aggregation,” which in turn characterizes the formation of medieval European decentralized economies. It’s tempting to view this historico-philosophical approach simply as a type of relativistic truism. Under that theory, all branches of history, science and literature inevitably derive from the same Western tradition (Aristotle; Galileo; some Germans). It isn’t that we are the weather, or that we are like the weather; rather, it’s that we impose our intellectual order onto the chaos of society and nature in the same way, with the same tropes and paradigms. But what if we were to believe that there is something more? What if there is a universally discernible principle that binds human society to the workings of nature? The mainstream acceptance of such a cosmic code would shake our human worldview to its core, for it would mean that we are finally in sync with a forbidding and chaotic universe.
This brings to mind the issue of the Cloud and why it is somehow relevant to the story of the Harts, who seem perfectly capable of failing at the American Dream even under optimum weather conditions. What is the mysterious relationship between humans and the Cloud? The unspoken hope and fear, never alluded to but always present, is that the Cloud is a true event--that Wilson’s town, which last made the national media due to a college football game, is part of a moral narrative of meaningful suffering. In keeping with this undertone, Mr. Trotti’s story is about the path to resignation: to the journey away from desire and towards a new conception of self. It ends, like many such journeys, with homelessness. Is it good to be homeless? Probably not; as a matter of fact, on any metaphorical level, it’s probably pretty bad. But, as Mr. Trotti implies, it is our true condition.
Patrick Trotti's forthcoming book of short stories, Come Tomorrow You'll Regret Today, will be published by Tailwinds Press in 2015.