Set the alarm
Waking up at Rembrandt’s by Thomas Lloyd Qualls
I’m going to go out on a limb here and write my review of Thomas Lloyd Qualls’ debut novel, Waking up at Rembrandt’s, before I speak to the guy. I contacted him through Facebook today, and I don’t really have any guarantee I’m going to be able to talk to him, but if I do, I’m going to run it as the 15 Minutes interview, which is on page 39. Suffice it to say, I’m going to ask him about some conclusions I reached reading the novel, which should either enhance this review or make it ridiculous—for example, if I can’t get the interview.
A quick summary: The novel mostly takes place in a remote, cabin-like restaurant near Lake Tahoe called Café Rembrandt. The hero and omniscient narrator is a female bartender named Jillian. She speaks in first person. She also speaks in second person for Maggie, a lawyer; Dillon, a broken-hearted spiritual seeker; and Phillip, a frustrated writer. Each of the characters—including the restaurant, which in some ways is as much a character as a setting—has reached a crisis point in his or her life. Interspersed through the novel are thematic poems and ruminations: love, words, Rembrandt. For example, “love: study 1.” Each of the characters attempts to work through his or her obstacles, eventually learning something and coming to a conclusion about life and how to live it—waking up, get it?
I’m going to hazard a guess that many readers will be unsatisfied and confused by the novel. But I’ve never been much of a fan of writers who bow to the lowest common denominator. I think Qualls’ second-person, present-tense style was brave and experimental, although I’m not sure it was the best way to tell the story. I’m also not sure that this is, in the strictest sense of the word, a novel. I got the strong feeling throughout that all these characters are Qualls, who was—and is—a bartender, a lawyer, a spiritual seeker, a writer and a poet. And just changing the gender of a character or two doesn’t make the story any more fictional or less autobiographical. (This is one of the assumptions where I could come off looking like a fool.)
Saying this is not strictly a novel would be roughly analogous to saying Sarah Palin’s new book, Going Rogue, is not in the strictest sense an autobiography.
I was frustrated by the use of Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn as a sustained metaphor. I don’t recall the author saying why the restaurant was called Café Rembrandt, and I didn’t get the connection between the artist and the story. In fact, if I hadn’t recently attended the Rembrandt exhibit and read something of Rembrandt’s life at the Nevada Museum of Art, I’m not sure I would have recognized or been sure that Qualls was writing about the painter and printmaker. I was just a little lucky that some of Qualls’ synchronicity is going on in my own life.
I had no problem with Qualls’ use of a complicated plotting method to advance the story. The narrative is not told exactly in sequence, or at least not obviously so, and some of these events could have been taking place at the same time, although in different parts of the world. I had a feeling, though, that the author occasionally found himself bridling at the complicated task he set himself, and every once in awhile, he’d explain that the world doesn’t necessarily work in a linear fashion or that by making time a character, a writer could take control of it.
All in all, I was happy to have read this book, and I’m happy Qualls wrote this one and is working on another. He’s a local author—winning our annual readers’ poll with Best Local Novelist in 2008 and 2009—and the cool thing about that is, some time I’m actually going to get to talk to him about what his intentions truly were. Hopefully, it’ll be soon and will appear at the end of this newspaper.