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Couch
Benjamin Parzybok
Small Beer paperback $16

review by David Hebblethwaite

Thom Bakker is a computer programmer with few advantages: physically graceless, lacking self-esteem, and far more comfortable dealing with machines than with people, now he doesn't even have a job. He does have a roof over his head, at least, but has to share it with two people he barely knows: Erik, a con-man whose mouth has a tendency to work faster than his brain, and a mysterious dreamer named Tree. All three roommates are approaching 30 with no real direction in mind.

Then something happens to turn their lives upside down, but not necessarily in a way they'd like. A ruptured waterbed from upstairs floods their apartment, leaving the guys with no option but to find somewhere else for themselves and their large orange couch. This is not quite as straightforward as it might be, because there's something strange about the couch. Fate seems to conspire against any attempts to dispose of it, and the couch grows unnaturally heavy if carried in certain directions, as though it wants to be taken somewhere in particular. Thom, Erik and Tree thus embark unwittingly on an odyssey that will challenge their understanding of themselves, the world about them, and of that large orange couch.

Benjamin Parzybok's first novel is an odd concoction. At first, Couch appears to be a whimsical tale, as the three guys encounter strangeness, carrying the couch around in accordance with Tree's dreams and the varying weight. As time goes on, though, the impression grows that Parzybok is playing it straighter than that, as there's a serious quest to be completed: the couch is in fact a holy relic that needs returning home, and there are people who seek to take the couch from the roommates, by any means necessary.

The essential message of Couch appears to be that the world and our lives would be better if we all got off our couches (literal and metaphorical) a bit more often. However, this does not come through as forcefully as it might, as several characters seem rather equivocal about what they think. This is one of several aspects of the novel which is not as strong as it could be.

The notion that the world may have a lost or secret history is, of course, one that provides fertile ground for fantasy writers; but there's a knack to making us readers feel - albeit temporarily - that there might be some literal magic in our mundane world. Parzybok does not handle this aspect of his novel very elegantly; the most extreme example of this is when a new character is introduced two-thirds of the way through and promptly gives an eight-page rant on the lost knowledge of older civilisations. Another problem is that the idea of the magic couch is inherently rather silly, which the author never quite manages to overcome. The net result is that it's only towards the end that Couch approaches the kind of mythic grandeur it really needed throughout.

Parzybok's characterisation also has its shortcomings. Although the roommates are distinguished from each other to an extent, they don't share 'star billing': Thom is in effect the protagonist, with the other two in supporting roles. No problem there in principle but, for such key characters, Erik and Tree are not as fleshed out as I would have liked. What's more, Thom himself does not come alive for most of the book: we hear about (for example) how a life of computing has affected how he interacts with the world and others; but we don't necessarily feel it on the emotional level that we perhaps ought to. Yet, as with the sense of otherworldliness, the characterisation of Thom does start to take off towards novel's end.

Despite these criticisms, Couch is by no means a bad book. It is not poorly written, and genuinely has its moments of humour, drama, and striking characterisation. It's just that we don't see what the book could have been until it's really too late.
Couch by Benjamin Parzybok

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