Trying to describe The Parallel Apartments is like trying to pat your head while rubbing your stomach while reciting the alphabet backwards. In his sophomore novel Bill Cotter deploys a broad and complicated cast of characters, all of whom are riddled with budding psychoses. There’s the aspiring serial killer, the infertile baby-crazed lunatic, the sex-bot madam, the matchmaking hermaphrodite, and, at the center of it all, the collage-obsessed chronic masturbator. These and more come together briefly as residents of the book’s eponymous Austin tenement. Based on their quirks, and the title’s reference to the location of their intersection, it would be easy to label the book black comedy.
That would be a gross oversimplification. Even the weirdest and wackiest members of Cotter’s menagerie play second and somewhat discordant fiddle to the book’s true focus: the estrangement of three generations of Austin women and their paths toward reconciliation.
Charlotte, Livia, and Justine Durant have issues, to put it mildly. Justine, unintentionally pregnant in New York City, finds her way back to her hometown to decide whether to keep her baby. She’s also searching for answers regarding her own origins after a homeless woman cryptically informs her that Livia, who always told Justine she was adopted, is actually her birth mother. Livia and her own mother, Charlotte, are no longer on speaking terms for undisclosed reasons.
There’s a lot going on here, but if a cohesive theme emerges, it’s motherhood. The Parallel Apartments is a bizarre catalog of women who have babies but don’t want them and women who want babies but don’t have them, and how these predicaments leave mothers and daughters and childless women emotionally (and often mentally) crippled. It would be far easier to label the book a farce if these depictions weren’t so heartbreaking, and readers may be left wondering whether Cotter is trying to say something about childbirth (and if so, what?), or if it’s just another of his many fictive obsessions.
The mixture of satire and seriousness is what makes The Parallel Apartments so confusing; Cotter continually convinces us that his characters are jokes, then pulls the punch-line out from under us, leaving readers flat on their backs, bewildered. This constant subversion of expectations is also what makes the book an intriguing, if emotionally disorienting, read.
Every now and then ambition impedes cohesion. Too often the saga of the Durant women is interrupted by supporting characters, rather than complemented by them. And after the 15th scene of Justine masturbating, eye-rolling is justified, if not outright demanded. The book is peppered with self-indulgent geographical nods to Austin, and these unnecessary references to Bass Concert Hall, Airport Boulevard, the U.T. Tower and other Austin icons make the writer seem worried that readers might forget where the book is set, or, worse, that its author is an authentic Austinite.
But even as Cotter labors to present Austin as weirder than it actually is, and even as his characters do abominable and ridiculous things to themselves and to one another, I found myself pitying, even rooting for, his band of bawdy misfits. For each of the plot’s points of despicable nonsense, there’s a counter-instance of unexpected kindness, all filtered through Cotter’s conflicted mix of mockery and compassion. The result is both horrific and heartwarming, no matter how difficult to describe.