Benjamin Parzybok's Couch is an epic for the apathetic, a journey to save the world undertaken by the post-college American slacker - for the essential reason that there doesn't seem to be anything better to do.
Couch effortlessly evokes those depressing after-school but just-before-life years of weird roommates, cramped apartments, and the yearly ritual of moving one's furniture and meager possessions to somewhere new. Roommates Tree, Erik, and Thom (Bakker, in a subtle shout-out to the assembled nerditry), after their apartment is inadvertently flooded by the sex maniacs living above them, undertake a seemingly simple task. They need to take their huge, red, handmade couch down to the Goodwill. Things being to grow gradually stranger as the Goodwill turns them away, as everywhere starts to turn them away, and Thom and his roommates begin to think that the Couch itself has a bit of a longer journey in mind.
Parzybok takes his time at the beginning, letting the details of Thom's life unfurl; an unemployed computer programmer in Portland, Thom's life is given a depressing resonance considering America's current economic hardships. It's actually uplifting when he finally commits himself to taking the Couch where it really wants to go. In a climate where everything seems to be falling apart, carrying a piece of furniture through a hundred miles of rainy wilderness is something, anyway.
The pace is languid, without much in the way of conflict or, for the first ninety pages or so, anything even resembling a threat. Certainly, there are one or two vague suggestions that "someone" might want the Couch, but since it's fairly incomprehensible just what kind of mischief a villain could get up to with a large red couch—even a magic one—the threat lacks a certain immediacy. Even once the guns come out, the story is dreamy, a slow place maintained by Parzybok's crisp, elegant, and sometimes quite lovely writing-and a premise so unfamiliar that it can't help but spark a burning curiosity.
Couch's gradual transmutation from "portrait of three slackers" to "heroic quest to save the world" is marred a little by a kind of stumbling condescension somewhere in the middle (when, by improbable chance, Thom et al have managed to get the Couch from Portland onto a freighter bound for Ecuador). It's a trope that I'd like to see gone forever: when the character "in the know" has to explain to our befuddled heroes just what's going on, and treats the scenario like it's an unfathomable mystery. He insists repeatedly that "some things make less sense the more they're explained" - which is an awfully big boast for an author, especially if he really is going to give us some explanation. It may be unbelievable that the couch is an ancient magical artifact, and it's certainly unlikely that there's a secret council watching over humanity to protect them from it, but it's hardly incomprehensible. Thom's response to the increasingly-bizarre turns his life is taking is also strangely reversed. He readily believes in the strangeness, but insists that he can barely understand it; yet, to the reader, it's perfectly to understand, just wildly implausible.
Still, there's something magnetic about the idea that all of humanity's short-sightedness, its close-mindedness, its misery and depression is tied up in just one ugly old couch—something that can be carted off to South America to let the rest of us finally be free of the damning chains of history. Bad news for South America, of course, but at least it's far away. Couch slowly falls prey to the siren song of escapism, permitting a kind of optimism about the fact that, at least in this book, there can be a happy ending to human history - or, at least, the promise of a happy beginning somewhere down the line.
It's not hard at all to let oneself get carried away in the surreal narrative, follow the dream-like logic, revel in the crystal clear prose. It's quite worth it to take the time and wander into the descriptions of gorgeous Andean landscapes. Ultimately, it's easy to believe that a huge, socially-awkward, unemployed computer programmer from Portland could save the world by getting rid of his couch. Escapism doesn't hurt once in a while, and there are worse ways to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
You can find Couch at Small Beer Press.
Chris Braak is editor of lit & cult/ure blog Threat Quality Press, and emperor of the moon in exile. His credentials, accomplishments, and accolades, are too numerous to list.