The Commuters by Cheryl Klein
In a society where houses are built closer and closer together and neighbors have become strangers, the person you pass on the street could have a profound impact on your life, and you’d never know it. Bringing this concept to fruition, Cheryl Klein’s first novel, The Commuters, is a collection of short stories examining the connections—and missed connections—that fuel our lives.
Billed as a “novel of intersections,” Klein uses every tool at a writer’s advantage to examine Los Angeles as a fragmented and isolated city, but she’s still able to maintain subtle strings of correlations linking the citizens together. Rarely is the network acknowledged by the characters themselves, but through structure, metaphors, themes and a red skirt, a reader can see the ties that interconnect their lives.
Refusing to confine the ensemble protagonists to one area of the city, Klein places her stories in a diverse range of locales; West Hollywood, the garment district, Santa Monica and South Central all are featured. Within these districts is a population crowded with people who are so concerned with themselves and what is right in front of them that they fail to see the bigger picture. There are no main characters in The Commuters. Instead, the cast is spread through 20 chapters. Each person acting as a driver on a freeway, each piloting his or her own car. While they may pass each other, even slightly acknowledge the presence of the person to their right, they rarely give a second thought as to whom that person is, where he or she is going, or where he or she has been. Klein proposes that if we were to ask those questions, we would find the intersections of our lives.
One simple thread, in the form of a red skirt, brings together a series of characters, their own similarities and differences magnified through their relation to the article of clothing. The red skirt, designed by Beverly Hills fashion designer Tam Perla, is worn by famous actress Kendall Elise Alexander and sewn by Melanea, who receives 25 cents a garment from her sweatshop boss, Mrs. Hong. A lesbian book club, a winged DJ and a series of fires that may or may not be targeting an ex-lover of Charlie Chaplin all are ties that bind Klein’s community together—whether they see it or not.
In an inspired move, Klein structures her novel after her characters: unique, diverse and fresh. By varying the formats of her chapters, she is able to bring in the strengths of prose, poetry, journalism and even comic strips to tell her tales. Because these storytelling styles are used infrequently, they are effective. If each chapter brought a new style, the styles would become a gimmick, not a tool. It is this same approach that Klein brings to her themes and metaphors. Transportation and the freeway are metaphors seen throughout the novel, but because they are used as support for already strong stories, the reader is not weighed down. Likewise, thematic elements—primarily the strength of women—are not emphasized. Rather, they are allowed to exist in subtext, where they are given room to develop and grow.
A list traveling miles long could be created, detailing how citizens of our society are becoming detached from each other, but Klein gives us one good reason as to why we should reunite. Whether you’re a young, gay man who works at a taco hut or the ex-roommate of a now-famous actress, everyone is looking for the same thing. We all just want to make a connection.