Neon Green – Margaret Wappler
Release Date: 12/07/2016 (USA)
Publisher: Unnamed Press
Pages: 246pp RRP: £12.99 (Paperback)
Kindle edition available here (£11.80)
In an alternative 1994, a flying saucer landing in the backyard of a suburban Illinois household isn’t an extraordinary event. This may be at the dawn of the Internet, and Kurt Cobain may have recently passed, but for Ernest Allen, his wife Cynthia, and children Gabe and Alison, it is at best a curious novelty. The flying saucer, however, will prove to be a curious parallel to something far more personal and devastating.
Margaret Wappler’s first novel, Neon Green, centres around the concept of the external object as a means to examine an internal (and occasionally abstract) event/concept. In this instance, the flying saucer takes the role of the external object. In the alternative history present in the novel, humanity made contact with aliens during the Reagan administration, and families can apply via sweepstake to have a flying saucer land in their backyard (which, coming from the era of Reaganomics, of course means that the sweepstake, and seemingly contact with the alien visitors, is handled by a large private conglomerate, New World). After his son, Gabe, wins the sweepstake, the environmental obsessive and director of the local Earth Day planning committee, Ernest focuses his interests on the flying saucer. Whilst previously he held everyone to his exacting standards for environmental preservation, the saucer begins to distance him from his family yet further. Gabe indulges his interest in ham radio (where he listens to a curious show, The Book of Connections, and the bizarre speculations its host puts forward – including whether the human eye can really see the colour red); Alison crafts custom sneakers; and Cynthia tries her best to draw her husband back towards his increasingly estranged family.
As the saucer begins dumping a fluorescent goo on to their lawn (which New World has assured the public is completely non-toxic), Ernest becomes increasingly suspicious of the saucer. At first this is represented by an obsessive journalling effort he draws the family into (complete with humorous passive-aggressive notes from his children). When Cynthia is diagnosed with breast cancer, this expands into him spending time and money the family don’t have on testing the substance, and sharing his obsession with a local environmental reporter, Marilyn, whose interest in the story appears to be something other than professional.
In the narrative she has constructed, Wappler combines a simple mechanism with an extraordinary focal point to talk about the aliens amongst us to, at times, great effect. Ernest’s paranoia and what it does to those around him is sometimes painful to observe, but it’s when it gradually shifts inwards – from the invading saucer in his backyard, to the invading cancerous cells draining the life from his partner – that it becomes something heart-wrenching. Admittedly the narrative does suffer on occasion when it shifts away from Ernest and Cynthia, and the tender moments between the two (particularly during the course of Cynthia’s chemotherapy). Gabe and Alison didn’t feel like they were developed sufficiently to hold the focus of the narrative when they did, but they still provide an interesting insight when Wappler shifts to their perspectives. Overall, I enjoyed reading Neon Green, and if you’re looking for a novel that takes a different look at the idea of the ‘close encounter’, give it a look.