Book Review

It’s August of 1994, and we’re in Prairie Park, a “moderately affluent, educated, safe, and green” suburb of Chicago. We meet the Allen family, whose glaring flaw is that the dad, Earnest, lets his obsessive environmentalism deflate every family activity. The opening scene of Margaret Wappler’s debut novel, Neon Green, gives us a taste of Earnest’s dysfunction: a seemingly innocuous birthday BBQ goes awry when Earnest, deaf to the pleading of his wife, Cynthia, spends the day mopping up—in Earnest’s words—“a chemical spill” (actually lighter fluid that Earnest refused to use even as his family’s meal wilted over unlit coals). This sort of behavior infuriates Cynthia, whereas the two teenaged children, Gabe and Allison, ignore their father’s zeal—that is, until Earnest later commands that his kids patrol the mall to raise money for Earth Day.

Okay, but what happens? Well, a flying saucer happens. The suburban Illinois of Neon Green exists on an alternate Earth in which alien ships from Jupiter regularly land in backyards. As uncanny as that sounds, the novel treats these flying saucers with such nonchalance that this alternate world feels strangely normal. When one of these crafts takes up residence in the Allens’ backyard and begins spewing neon green waste onto the lawn, an already environmentally-militant Earnest becomes downright draconian in both his urgency to protect his family’s health from the saucer’s waste and in his combative paranoia about, well, pretty much everything. As Earnest cracks, fissures open throughout the Allen family, and so goes the story.

Yes, the premise of Neon Green has the ring of a Hollywood pitch—Flying Saucer Disrupts Suburban Lifebut the presence of the alien ship never overwhelms the meat of the story, a heartfelt slice of life told through alternating perspectives of a nuclear family in the ’90s. That is not to say that the saucer takes a backseat. With its campy, Ed Wood-inspired construction (saucer-shaped, riveted metal, flashing lights), the alien ship encourages the reader to genre-fy Neon Green as sci-fi pulp. Into which nook of the sci-fi genre will Neon Green settle? Will this be an Invasion of the Body Snatchers? A Mars Attacks!? Even, perhaps, with its suburban ’90s Midwest setting, an episode of The Simpsons: “Treehouse of Horror”?

Because of Neon Green’s genre affiliations, the sophisticated reader, whether wittingly or not, makes genre predictions. We’re pulled through the story guessing when (or if) the aliens will emerge from the ship, or if the alien ship will indeed blast the Allen family to smithereens. After all, an ominous brochure that accompanied the ship states:

Do not try to force or lure them out. Do not damage their home, tamper with any equipment or, in any way, create a hostile environment. Any damage to the spaceship could put the occupants in danger, and possibly the host family. It’s also imperative that if the aliens do come out—and this particular event cannot be guaranteed—that you keep a respectful distance. Do not attempt to agitate the aliens. For entertainment purposes only.

Because Wappler’s story signals conformity with rules of the sci-fi genre, a healthy amount of tension and curiosity fuels readers as they try to guess where the story is headed. For example, the characters—and the reader by proxy—are consumed with curiosity about the spaceship’s purpose and fate. Yet the ship’s identity doesn’t follow genre norms by gradually unveiling its purpose. Instead, the ship acts like a Rorschach test; rather than reveal itself under scrutiny, the ship functions as a way to provide insights into the psyche of the characters. So while the ship infuriates Earnest, it is a mysterious oracle to Cynthia:

An idea blasted in, as if yelled by someone in her ear: the spaceship is here to find something or someone. No: the spaceship is here to get something or someone and go back.

Neon Green breaks from another rule of the sci-fi genre: plot-shifts and revelations are supposed to be triggered by the alien or the “other.” Neon Green’s twists erupt from fundamentally human conflicts, like contorted love or the specter of death. By playing with and disrupting genre norms, Wappler lures us into a more nuanced and rich story than we might otherwise expect.

In doing so, Wappler’s book sidesteps sci-fi and ventures into a literary conversation with Don DeLillo’s White Noise. I even wondered as I read Neon Green if its color-coded title is a quiet shout-out to DeLillo’s book, which shares everything from a riotous family, to a Midwest setting, to a toxic event. Whether Wappler is indeed constructing an homage or not, where DeLillo’s postmodern classic revels in brawny prose rich with cynicism, Wappler seems content to write in an approachable—even—suburban tone. As a result, we feel comfortable making a human connection with Neon Green’s characters. We enter into a vulnerable space with the Allen family and are privileged to share in their quiet, poignant, bedroom moments. Exemplary of this experience are passages in which Gabe perches in his bed late at night and tunes his shortwave radio to a ghostly broadcaster who calls her show The Book of Connections: Though it is Gabe who tunes his desperate and lonely ears each night to the radio, we feel like the broadcaster’s voice might be reaching out to us:

“You and I are now connected, and I like thinking about that. It does not matter if we would’ve stopped each other on the street to talk. It does not matter if we went to school or work together. Being born into the same family or town or cult is irrelevant. I get to talk to you. It’s selfish but pure.

“You can also turn me off. That is your power.

“Would you like to turn me off?”

That radio broadcast, which conveys comfort without providing answers, is both one of the great pleasures of Neon Green and is emblematic of the various coy, idiosyncratic, and dualistic threads running through the book. The Book of Connections serves to provide comfort to Gabe and gives the book a surreal texture. This fits with the slow, intimate comfort of Neon Green’s pacing, which can feel like watching home movies on VHS; you’re seeing something distant and intimate all at once. You’re in the presence of four flickering flames of human life, each of them simultaneously unpredictable and familiar. If it wasn’t for the flying saucer blinking in the backyard, you wouldn’t be wrong to mistake Neon Green for a memoir, with all the tragedy and hope and growth that makes characters in a book spring miraculously to life. Maybe Margaret Wappler is hiding a deeply personal tale in the shadow of a flying saucer. If so, in the case of Neon Green, she has succeeded.

About the Reviewer

Kirk Sever’s writing has appeared in Angel City Review, Unbroken Journal, Rain Taxi, Bird’s Thumb, and elsewhere. Additionally, Kirk’s work has earned him runner-up status in both the Academy of American Poets George M. Dillon Memorial Award and the Northridge Fiction Award. He currently teaches writing at Cal State Northridge.