‘Five Windows,’ a Just-So-Well-Written First Novel From San Francisco’s Jon Roemer
I took minimal, almost nonexistent notes on Jon Roemer’s first novel Five Windows. This happens when I’m enjoying the book so much that I forget to put down the essentials of what it’s about and what it’s doing. My main note is “just so well-written,” so I’ll pass that along to you. Jon Roemer writes beautifully, squeezing detail and meaning into finely wrought sentences, working best with the difficult zone of what’s not on the page. If you’re an experienced reader who desires brief, thinky books with small dashes of absurdism, Five Windows is the one for you.
The unnamed narrator is a book editor and publisher, as Roemer is, and he lives in San Francisco, as Roemer does. A few plot threads tangle together across the book: the narrator’s upstairs neighbor involves him in a dramatic relationship and/or psychotic break, his across-the-street neighbors spy on him and judge him, a famous author offers an oddly coincidental novel to the narrator’s small press, and a new transit hub threatens the integrity of his neighborhood. Each separate thread introduces additional weirdness to the narrator’s life, and he cannot recover from one before another steps in to destabilize him further. He injures his knee badly, his ex-wife Sylvie hovers uncomfortably at the edges of his life, and the blessing of a spot to call home in the unreal kingdom of 2010s San Francisco starts to seem more like a curse.
Five Windows takes some inspiration from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window, but not in the way I expected. The narrator doesn’t act like a bored voyeur so much as an invested resident of a neighborhood, and the frozen set of an apartment in New York differs wildly from the constantly shifting landscape of this novel. Roemer’s inspiration almost certainly comes from Hitchcock’s L.B. Jeffries being trapped in one place with a good view, but the narrator of the novel doesn’t see his trap as clearly as Jeffries does.
He thinks he works at home, and that he doesn’t mind being alone in his apartment most of the time. But then each of his casual friendships begins to fracture and drift away, and he realizes how isolated he is: “He’s come every day and cheerfully kept himself a stranger. Now, the morning of a close call, with smoldering still going, he looks disgusted and impatient, like I’m the real trouble here, like he’s always resented climbing my steps.” The “he” in question is a delivery driver for a food service named EggSprout, whose relentless cheeriness provides an on-point touch of surrealism.
This book weaves its themes and ideas so closely and so well that it’s tricky to guess its overall purpose. Modern isolation goes in there, as well as some of the traits of absurdist literature. Gentrifying San Francisco, with its accompanying politics and difficult people, appears repeatedly and at great length:
“Everything felt busier and infinitely more crowded, like there was more of everything crammed into the same space, but also like most of it was more of the same. More spic-and-span restaurants, more handwoven hygge, more glass walls and living walls and walls with tasteful retro supergraphics…More office workers on the sidewalk carried more pricey tote bags stamped with messages proclaiming more is always too much. Resistance had its own brand, its own signs of anti-consumption. I watched Sylvie try to dress down, try to look inconspicuous, hyper-careful about her choices, her shoes and her watches, her bags and her scarves, convinced that understatement wasn’t a statement, too.”
This may be a little bit of a lecture, but it captures the changing face of the Bay Area extraordinarily well. Five Windows does that, too, with humor, patience, and enormous skill. It’s a bright little gem from a promising, thoughtful writer.
(Dzanc Books, September 24, 2019)