Over the past few months, most of us have felt our plans for the future slip out of reach. Perhaps, like me, you too have been gripped by anxiety over what the future holds. This sense of uncertainty underpins everything in Life Events, the latest book from Karolina Waclawiak. The book follows Evelyn, a woman who feels her life has stalled. This unease suffuses the novel, and Evelyn, vibrating to reach a fevered pitch—near mania. This leads Evelyn to look towards the endings in everything, in her marriage, and to life itself. She vacillates between a sort of unflappable detachment, and such intense longing to be seen and needed that it leads her to act recklessly, and at times self-destructively. But while Waclawiak’s penchant toward deep interiority leads to some sharp and illuminating insights, Evelyn’s indecision undermines a more profound understanding, leaving her just barely beyond where she started.
Despite being married (to a man named Bobby) Evelyn seems unable or unwilling to take what society often places as the next steps on the roadmap with her husband: buying a house, having children. By the time the novel opens, serious faults have been revealed—which are only compounded by Evelyn having recently lost her job. The couple continues to go through the motions, and attends counseling, with neither party willing to make the first move away, or first serious transgression. For Evelyn, it’s as if the marriage has already crumbled, and between now and then are just steps towards the inevitable. Yet this is more symptomatic of her overall malaise and unwellness rather than a catalyst. She describes her detachment from everything, unmoved by possessions, relationships, or emotions.
Evelyn thinks back to her own tenuous relationship with her parents, particularly with her alcoholic father. She remembers drives out into the desert at different stages in her life, all different versions of fleeing from or to Los Angeles. In a way, she views much of her life as a series of different escapes. And yet, none of these seem to have stuck, or brought her where she wants to be. It’s not clear for Evelyn exactly where she wants to end up, but each escape has eventually brought her back to LA, to turmoil.
So faced with the end of her marriage, she begins looking for her next escape. But rather than continue to run from her emotions, she decides to try and lean into them, run headlong into grief, as if to shock herself into feeling. Evelyn finds an ad to become a death doula, to guide the terminally ill and those out of options into a more humane respite. She first does a training course, which takes the form of a support group, led by a woman named Bethanny. Bethanny is somewhere between self-help spiritual guru and Zen master, and guides the group towards self-discovery as they’ll be expected to do for their clients. After graduating, Evelyn works with three different people nearing the end of their time on Earth.
In a way, it’s the decisiveness of her clients that Evelyn longs for. Often, her own decisions in the novel tend to be impulsive, and lead to embarrassment or consequences for her. She considers starting an affair before formally ending her marriage, only to get second thoughts. Even with her clients, she often oversteps, and crosses lines that only in hindsight are mistakes.
Often, the time Evelyn has with her clients is short. As the novel progresses, her time with each continues to shrink, showing the effect they’ve had on her, and her new focus on re-examining her own life. The novel is dotted with scenes showcasing Evelyn’s rich inner life, both through a close reading of her memories, as well as a running commentary of her recent freedom. These sequences are almost Cuskian in the way Waclawiak manages to examine Evelyn’s intent, along with her feelings on womanhood and divorce, and the unique challenges those come with. It’s these moments when Life Events is at its best. Evelyn is among the richest and more realized characters I’ve seen in fiction recently, which makes it all the more disappointing that there’s so little in the way of action or causality to propel the novel from scene to scene. Transitions between the multitude of chapters often feel haphazard, and the pieces work about as well individually as part of a more cohesive whole.
Eventually, she leaves even her newfound role, leading her to—where else?—Death Valley. Here, Evelyn hopes to watch the sunrise. But rather than culminate in a sort of big epiphany for her, she instead finds herself at another crossroads. That’s not to say no progress is made; the Evelyn at the end is a far-cry from her at the beginning, at her most apathetic. It’s clear that for Waclawiak, the journey is more important than some perfectly satisfying end. For the most part, she’s right.
By Karolina Waclawiak
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Published July 28, 2020
Ian is a writer based out of Chicago, and one of the Daily Editors at The Chicago Review of Books. His work has appeared in The LA Review of Books, Input Magazine, The Kenyon Review, Chicago Reader, among others. He is working on a novel. Follow him on Twitter as @IanJBattaglia.