At first, Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green seems like a typical family drama. Ernest, Cynthia, and their two teenage children—Gabe and Alison—live in a Chicago suburb near a park in the mid-90s. They grill together, celebrate birthdays, and get on each other’s nerves. Except in this world, the US government has made contact with aliens on the planet Jupiter.
That and there’s a sweepstakes, where ordinary citizens can enter to win a visit from an alien spaceship, complete with lights, sounds, and neon sludge in their own backyards. Gabe enters to win against his father’s wishes, and voila! A space ship lands at their house days later.
Wappler’s 90s references are as precise and pervasive as the period details from a Hilary Mantel novel. And while the cover and central conceit scream “science fiction,” Neon Green has more in common with We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler or The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. The thrust of the book is the family drama, not the strange and impossible things happening around them.
Family patriarch Ernest is a hardcore environmentalist, and his wife Cynthia is an environmental lawyer. Together, they guilt their children into using only natural soaps, chemicals and foods. Thus the spaceship represents a big challenge for them, and brings out a divide in their family: the parents may have die-hard convictions, but the kids aren’t totally sold on them yet.
When Ernest’s suspicions about the spaceship begin to boil over, he insists that his family keep a daily log, recording all of the ships beeps, pops, and flashing lights. In a pre-smartphone, pre-internet era, this journal is an interesting riff on social media that also accentuate the differences between the characters.
The family drama turns heartbreaking when Cynthia is diagnosed with cancer. Each character deals with her illness differently. As the family unravels, the spaceship begins to take on a new significance as the projection of all their hopes and fears. In one scene, Gabe addresses the spaceship directly.
“Take me somewhere,” he said, “away from here, some place cool and maybe just a little bit fucking scary.” He tried to keep the thought there: simple and pure. But then other questions kept dodging in. What am I supposed to do for a career? Am I supposed to make a lot of money? Or be really powerful? Will I get married and have kids? Never mind all that. He went back to his initial idea. “I want to see the world. Period.”
While Gabe sees the spaceship as an opportunity for escape, his father sees it as an abomination. Thus Wappler uses the spaceship to demonstrate how each family member deals with their frustration and anger. It pulls them apart and brings them together. At times, it’s like Wappler is asking: wouldn’t it be nice to have something physical, sitting in your backyard, that you could blame all your problems on?
Cynthia’s illness takes center stage in the second half of the book, and you begin to forget that spaceships aren’t something that actually existed in the 1990s. And although the premise may seem lighthearted and fun at the onset, Wappler doesn’t pull any emotional punches. In the end, it’s a thoughtful, unusual, and challenging family drama.
FICTION – SCIENCE FICTION, FAMILY
Neon Green by Margaret Wappler
Published July 12, 2016