The wheel of fortune is one of the most well-known images of fate. This wheel spins randomly, setting the course of destiny for the people and events it controls.
Todd Robert Petersen’s It Needs to Look Like We Tried takes the idea of the wheel of fortune to its logical conclusion by not only letting fate bat its characters into the strangest of places but also by letting the stories unfold in a circular structure.
The Northern Arizona University alumn’s novel, a series of interlinked short stories in which the results of one person’s misfortunes stretch out to affect people far away, begins and ends with a car accident. Both, while harmless to the passengers, serve as catalysts for much larger events. The actions of one story affect the next in profound ways, as life spirals out of control for each story’s characters.
It Needs to Look Like We Tried combines the six degrees of separation theory with the butterfly effect, in which even the smallest of actions can have monumental consequences later down the road. Protagonists become related in some way or another, though they rarely meet. A marriage in Santa Barbara holds the key to freedom for two teenagers in the Mojave Desert. A cheating spouse in New York wreaks havoc on young California homeowners. A popular TV host’s arrest for financial fraud hastens an Oklahoma train engineer’s mental decline. These connections reveal themselves over the course of the novel, and that’s part of the book’s fun—trying to figure out whose actions butterfly-effected whom, and where exactly the whole thing began.
The characters in It Needs to Look Like We Tried are caught in the wake of other people’s lives. In the novel’s opening story, “The Impeccable Driver,” a man inadvertently kills a dog while driving to his father’s wedding, an accident that leads to a chance encounter with a lonely widow. In “Cape Cod Fear,” a young couple’s search for a first house descends into thriller territory when they buy a foreclosed home. In “The Dr. Science Show,” the host of a public-television show faces radical changes to his program as well as his marriage. “Unscripted” focuses on the crew of a reality show as the segment they’re shooting descends into hell. “Providence” follows up on several characters from “Unscripted,” showing the risks people are willing to take to better their loved ones’ lives. Finally, “Small World” is the bow that ties several of the stories together, as one man’s misfortune leads to a generous act in the name of love.
While the themes of the stories may be dark—parental death, infidelity, mental illness—all of this could have been overly melodramatic if not for Petersen’s light touch. The author is not concerned with focusing on the dour. What interests him instead is his characters’ emotional reactions when the world drops them into situations that are beyond their control. They are caught in storms created by other people who are, in turn, reacting to someone else’s storm.
“Doesn’t seem like a storm’s got any rules,” says a character in “Providence.”
“There’s probably rules the storm doesn’t know about,” replies another.
Besides the novel’s butterfly-effect connections, what ties the stories together is the idea of home. Many of the novel’s conflicts are based on people’s relationship to home—the stories begin on the road and end at home, or vice versa. Petersen asks what home means, sometimes on a macro scale, as in a wider community, but also in regards to one’s physical home as well. Is home something that nurtures, or does it tie you down? Sometimes you must fight with all your teeth for a sense of home; other times, the best strategy is to get in your car and drive as far as you can. For Petersen’s characters, the trouble is knowing which to do.
It Needs to Look Like We Tried is available through Counterpoint Press and at Bright Side Bookshop. Todd Robert Petersen will be reading from his book and signing copies at Bright Side Bookshop, 18 N. San Francisco St., on Tuesday, June 26, from 6:30-8 p.m. Mark Alvarez is a creative writing MFA student at Northern Arizona University.