Pike and Bloom, winner of the Madeleine P. Plonsker Prize at Lake Forest College, is an impressive debut novel by author Matthew Nye. Though experimental in form (the text is broken into justified prose blocks, some consisting of a single intricate sentence), the story is propulsive and deceptively straightforward. In Book One, a man called Pike is released from the hospital and tries to find his way home. In Book Two, a man called Bloom goes to his office while his wife, Clytie, follows him there.
That’s what happens in Pike and Bloom. What it’s about is more complicated.
On one level, it’s about paranoia. Clytie is paranoid Bloom is cheating. Bloom is paranoid everyone can tell he’s incompetent. Pike is paranoid to the point of delusion, his return home thwarted by the menace he sees in other people. Pike builds up strangers in his mind with made-up names (the cowboy, the vampire, the man from Westphalia) until he starts seeing the same characters in multiple bodies, as though they’re spirits with nothing better to do than body-hop all over Indianapolis, stalking him.
At a deeper level, Pike and Bloom is about how hard it is to connect with other people. After hours of wandering alone, Pike finds himself in the front yard of a man who offers Pike a seat and a glass of ice water. Pike is thankful but senses pity in the man’s questions (Is Pike lost? Does he need a taxi?) and feels himself becoming angry. Pike tries to calm down by counting in his head from one to thirty but makes the mistake of raising his fingers to indicate one, two, etc., while the kindly man “becomes increasingly agitated . . . asking why Pike is staring, why he is methodically raising his digits, why won’t he speak when he was speaking before,” until, finally, the man stands up and steps away, disturbed. Only then, just before returning to the streets, to solitude, does Pike muster, “thank you for the drink.”
Book Two contains an elegant inversion of that episode in which Bloom, outwardly a more stable character than Pike, falls on the sidewalk and sits there, embarrassed, until a panhandler approaches. Bloom fears the panhandler, who has “huge hands—good for killing, Bloom thinks,” until the panhandler helps him to his feet. Moved, Bloom gives the panhandler all the cash in his wallet, twelve dollars, but as he does so he’s still afraid to look the man in the eye, “afraid of the depths of feeling” he might see there. The panhandler says thank you “in a way that actually means thank you,” but when the panhandler reaches out his hand again (to shake?), Bloom, who wants so badly to be liked, to have friends, “cannot tell if he is making a threat or a gesture at friendship” and runs away.
Clytie suffers from the same confusion. Surrounded by strangers, she tries desperately to read their faces. She sees in the wide brow of an office worker “a disposition towards murder, duplicity, dullness, a speed for providing unsolicited advice.” In a secretary’s face, Clytie sees “kindness, stoicism, wrath, a Sisyphean self-flagellation.” But Clytie is unable to read as deeply into her husband. Watching Bloom from afar, she sees a man “always inventing new techniques in order to do the same task slightly worse,” reducing him to the role of bureaucrat (a role Bloom only wishes he could fill); and in doing so she misses Bloom’s true feelings, the feelings he struggles against. By the end of the novel, their distant relationship has an air of tragic inevitability.
Pike and Bloom is also about Indianapolis. The city brings to mind Kurt Vonnegut, its celebrated native son, but Vonnegut treated Indianapolis with condescension (who can forget the Hoosiers in Cat’s Cradle, the occasion for Vonnegut’s coinage “granfalloon” to describe people who affect a shared identity?). Nye’s position in Pike and Bloom is ambivalent. He writes of a city with “very serious blues,” a city full of 1992 Ford Tauruses and “benign white men” who read USA Today. To Nye, the city’s phallic War Memorial is the eye of Foucault’s panopticon, ever scrutinizing people like Pike and Bloom and Clytie.
In case all of this sounds glum, know that Pike and Bloom is quite funny, full of surprising details and imaginative larks. Pike reads an interview with sea captain Sixtus Petraeus, father of David, who unexpectedly “offers up that he is a fan of the Japanese boy band S.M.A.P.—their 2008 release, the album Super Modern Artistic Performance—and J-pop more broadly.” Later, Nye gives hilarious descriptions of two books Pike has read: the first, a novel about soil, and the second, also a novel, in which
rival boiler room operators fall in love with the same woman, Helen, their superior officer and commander aboard the U.S.S. Areola, who has feelings for them both, and while choosing between her Joe and her Johnny, Helen must weigh the state of her command and the war effort more broadly against her erotic impulses to act—though throughout the great majority of the work, it is simply the two operators shoveling coal into the ship’s boilers—
In light of such humor, it’s tempting to call the world of Pike and Bloom absurd and its characters appropriately crazy, but to lump everything together like that would be to miss the novel’s central concern: the conflict between a person and his or her world. Pike and Bloom and Clytie buck against their world and the lives they’ve made within it. And perhaps, Nye suggests, their paranoia is less the cause of this conflict than a symptom of that world’s inability to accommodate eccentricity.
About the Reviewer
Bradley Bazzle's short stories appear in New England Review, New Ohio Review, Epoch, Web Conjunctions, and elsewhere, and have won awards from Third Coast and the Iowa Review. Some of them can be found at bradleybazzle.com. He lives in Athens, Georgia, with his wife and daughter.