The Parallel Apartments is a literary tightwire act executed almost flawlessly. Author Bill Cotter isn’t just a sure handed storyteller…he’s cocky. He tosses off words long withered from disuse within the pages of an unabridged OED. He ratchets up the absurdity level and challenges you to get off the ride. He offers up the most whacked-out rogue’s gallery of deeply flawed (and frequently pitiful) characters and dares you to care about them.
Bravo, Bill Cotter. You pulled it off. The Parallel Apartments is a sui generis farcical exploration of personal identity, delivered with delightful descriptive specificity, uncommon brio and unexpected compassion.
The story centers on three generations of women, Charlotte, her daughter Livia and Justine, Livia’s daughter, and how their personal “sins” are not just revisited on their offspring, but create the very form their lives will take. Cotter jumps around in time from Charlotte’s 1950’s youth, depicted as mostly realistic and recognizable, to 2005, which is presented as a funhouse mirror version of our reality. The world in The Parallel Apartments becomes increasingly absurd and grotesque, the supporting charters more outrageous. Beyond providing reliable humor (ranging from broad, to sly, to cutting), this absurdity helps bring to the forefront the humanity and universality of Charlotte, Livia and Justine’s wants, desires, and fears. Regardless of how strange or awful or wonderfully weird or libertine the world becomes, our brains, bodies and egos need to be expression and protection.
The cover image features a set of matryoshka nesting dolls, an object revisited in the book’s coda. The Parallel Apartments explores how the previous generations—in their experiences and mistakes—creates the very shape we start out seeing the world. With each passing generation, even while the world changes and becomes more rife with possibilities, we’re always laden with the accumulated baggage of past generations. In this way, they create the very shape of the walls, barriers, and hurdles we strike out against. Personal rebellion is intrinsically defined by the very thing we rebel against. The book’s secondary characters play out this theme in various bizarre and delightfully unexpected ways.
My enthusiasm for The Parallel Apartments is tempered by the personal allowance that I may have a limited reading of the sexual politics inherent in the story. It takes confidence, nerve… hubris …for Bill Cotter to craft a multi-generational female-driven story that traffics so heavily (yet largely implicitly) in female sexuality. Prostitution, miscarriage, sexual promiscuity, pregnancy fears and gender-based power dynamics all play significant roles in the story. Someone with a more sharply honed feminist reading may (rightly) find Cotter’s representations naïve, inaccurate, outright dismissive or worse. I found Cotter’s depiction of the modern world (and the recent past to a lesser extent) as absurd and grotesque an effective distancing technique, highlighting the goodness and humanity (with all its flaws) in Charlotte, Livia and Justine. Cotter is is never cruel to them, and provides them all with a relatively full-fleshed humanity. They are not perfect, they have made terrible mistakes, but they all have earned their dignity and deserve our compassion, care and even respect. That’s my reading and I would very much be interested in an opposing or more nuanced reading.
From the first page of The Parallel Apartments, author Bill Cotter puts on an Elvis jumpsuit replete with blinking neon lights, steps to the mic and announces that he’s going to drive his urine-powered mini-bike—blindfolded—to victory in the Indianapolis 500. It’s bold, hubristic, full of foolish confidence, likely regrettable, but attention-grabbing for sure. By the time I finished The Parallel Apartments, I’d experienced every emotional stage a spectator would in witnessing this scenario.
“This is awesome, but no way he can pull this off.”
”Oh man, if he can pull this off…”
“I’ve never seen anything like this!”
“Please! Just don’t crash down the stretch.”
Bill Cotter deserves the trophy and accolades, but the readers of The Parallel Apartments are the winners.
Bill Cotter will be signing and discussing his books at Booksellers on Tuesday, March 18th, from 6:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m.