Friday, January 23, 2015

Seeking Yourself, Searching for Signs: A Review of Jon Raymond's Rain Dragon

Title: Rain Dragon
Author: Jon Raymond
Edition: Bloomsbury (Paperback, 2012)
Pages: 260
How I Came By This Book: The title caught my eye while I was browsing the shelves at my local library.

About the Author: Jon Raymond is the author of the novel The Half-Life, a Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2004, and the short-story collection Livability, winner of the 2009 Ken Kesey Award for Fiction. He is the writer of several films, including Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff, and co-writer of the Emmy-nominated screenplay for the HBO miniseries Mildred Pierce. Raymond's writing has appeared in Bookforum, Artforum, Tin House, the Village Voice, and other publications. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his family.

Synopsis: Damon and his girlfriend, Amy, have had enough of Los Angeles. Dreaming of a simpler life, they leave the city to find work on an organic farm. But they've scarcely arrived when their vague hopes start to come unraveled: What are they really doing there? Who are their friends? Are they truly testing themselves, or are they just chasing an impossible fantasy?

By degrees, the realize that their dreams are not the same. For Damon, a career in brand development unfolds almost effortlessly, while for Amy, the menial labor of the farm leads to a satisfying but difficult new path. As the rift deepens, they are forced to evaluate fundamental questions of identity and fate, ambition and betrayal, work and love.

This novel is a fresh, searching story about how we construct a sense of destiny in our own lives--the strange signs we cling to for guidance and the major events we often understand only in retrospect. 

Review: I'm going to make a confession: I'm one of those people who is constantly trying to figure out who they are. What do I want to do with my life? What do I value? Why don't I spend more time volunteering? Why the hell can't I just go vegan and stay vegan? These are all questions that I grapple with all the time, much to the annoyance of my poor, wonderful husband, who just wishes that I would stop worrying and start living my life. But as an anxious woman who is unsatisfied with her lack of career, I find that defining myself is difficult. Which is why I think this novel really resonated with me.

Rain Dragon is the story of a young couple, Damon and Amy, who are seeking a better, more satisfying way of life. Told from Damon's perspective, the book follows their arrival at an organic farm called Rain Dragon, and their attempts at finding their niche there. In the meantime, the trouble they've been having with their relationship--which they had been hoping to leave behind in L.A.--follows them to Oregon. Damon finds himself trying to win back Amy while simultaneously trying to give her the space that she needs. Along the way, the couple learns things about themselves and each other that they never expected.

Raymond's novel is sparse and selective--in a good way. The reader only sees the important things that are happening; there's no wasting time on unnecessary descriptions or side plots. Time moves along quickly, following the seasons for a whole year. The narrative will jump a few days or weeks and there is no need for the author to fill in the blanks. If the reader needs to know something, he or she is told and only when the information is relevant. In this way, it is as if we are watching the highlight reel of a man's life, the way that we often look at our own lives and memories. I'm sure that this is on purpose--in a book about looking for signs and searching for answers, it would make sense that only the noteworthy things would stand out. Thinking about how I am when I'm trying to wrangle with something that's happened, I pick and choose what I think is significant, just as Damon does. It's why both he and the reader are blindsided in the end. We don't see it coming because we're interpreting the events of the book the way we think things should be, rather than how they are.

The characters in Rain Dragon are also crafted in such a way as to mimic the selectivity of a person's mind. Amy is the most important person in Damon's life, so only she--and, later on, his boss, Peter--is fully explored. The other people who work at Rain Dragon--Jaeha, Linda, Michael, Emilio--are all on the periphery. Damon is more focused on himself and his relationship with Amy, so everyone else is relegated to the background. By the time the novel ends, the reader realizes that what he or she has just read isn't really a novel, but, instead, an exploration of the way that a person's wants and desires can cloud the way the see the world. 

Beautifully descriptive and bitingly honest, Raymond is a skilled writer who has the distinction of having penned the most brilliant passage I've read in a very long time:
"It's all faking it, anyway," [Peter] said, standing before us for one of his frequent pep talks. "If you think anyone out there's not imitating their dad, their friends, their president, their movie stars, you're fucking fooling yourselves. You're making yourself feel like shit for no reason. Look inside. You know your ideas and tastes and opinions all come from somewhere else. You know you pick up something here, you steal something there. Just accept it. You have no Self. God knows, I don't. I'm just a bunch of crap I found. I'm pieces of everyone I've ever met stuck together. But what I have is this: I don't give a fuck. I embrace it. I steal from everyone and I pretend it's mine and I sure as hell don't care if anyone steals from me...."
Ultimately, I was surprised by how much this book sucked me in. It's a simple narrative, with a message that runs much deeper, and I got to a point where I hated to put it down for any reason. I'm giving Rain Dragon 4 out of 5 Gabriels.

My interview with Katherine McIntyre will be up at 8 a.m. tomorrow.


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