Review of 'Oikos' by Adam Moorad

Adam Moorad’s first novel, Oikos, is an intimate but humorous exploration of existential anxiety. The novel’s protagonist—the seemingly eponymously named Lamb—is the son of a former preacher. Lamb's mother "died before he was born—technically." An anxiety-ridden hypochondriac, Lamb continually imagines he’s contracted cancer somehow, such as forgetting to wash his hands. Even slight alterations in his physiology convince him he is terminally ill:
He feels a prickling sensation spread across his forehead. His hair is hanging in his eyes like a strange helmet. He swallows. The air around him tastes spoiled and lifeless. He swallows again. His throat hurts. He thinks there is a glandular abnormality occurring in the back of his throat. His tonsils. An infection. Lamb wonders if it’s genetic. Chromosomal. […] Lamb believes there is something wrong with the way he thinks.
Though he acknowledges his thought patterns may be the problem, and though he is horrified by the present moment in which he is thinking, he somehow believes in the potential for change. He’s haunted by this potential, as he's confident that, deep down, he may not have the resolve to change. He's paralyzed by his desire for self-improvement—perpetually reminiscing on what he will do during momentary lapses of anxiety and hypochondria:
[Lamb] feels healthy and decides to give up drinking. He will exercise every morning before work. He will eat more vegetables. He will floss more frequently. He will become a better person with a greater lung capacity. Lamb looks at the wall and imagines the cells inside his brain multiplying. Growing larger. He feels smarter. He stands with his eyes closed for five minutes. He places his hand on his heart. It is beating gradually. He wonders if his pulse is strong for someone his age. He counts the beats in his chest. Loses count.
Many of Moorad’s chapters cleverly juxtapose situations and images, linking them thematically:
Cynthia will not stop moving. She darts from one side of the kitchen to the next. Lighting candles, toweling countertops, slicing carrots into small, identical pieces of orange chunk. Everything is done with a tempo and inaccuracy that makes Lamb nervous.

Cynthia is cooking dinner. A roast. She turns around. Opens the oven. When she does, the kitchen fills with dry heat. Lamb feels dried-out. She closes the oven. For some reason, he thinks about the desert. He sees the sand, the sun, the dunes. Bedouin tribesmen crossing the Sahara on camelback, swallowing their own resinous mucus for hydration.

Cynthia’s hair sticks to her forehead.

“Your father’s talking to the dermatologist,” she says matter-of-factly. She peers at the clock over the oven. She says, “We’re still not ready.”

“The dermatologist?” Michael says. “Why?” He rummages in the refrigerator.

“There was a mole,” she says. “The dermatologist called it problematic. They cut it off with a laser.”

“Really?” Michael says. He sounds excited. “I love lasers.” He looks at Lamb. Lamb doesn’t say anything, but nods. Mumbles accordance under his breath. Something indecipherable. Even he can’t understand. He looks around the kitchen. Breathes. He pictures a laser. A pink beam of acidic light slicing his father’s body into small, identical pieces. Lamb thinks about carrots. He smiles.
Several scenes in Oikos portray the characters watching television. Moorad depicts their watching (and, indeed, what they watch) as if it is a real, concrete aspect of their lives—as if what’s happening on television is happening to them. Moorad here implies the medium of television is so ubiquitous that it actually becomes autobiographical, so that we proclaim: I watched television today. I did that. It happened to me. This is what I've done with my life...

Lamb’s roommate, Donny, plays lots of video games. Moorad’s descriptions of Donny’s actions as a gamer humorously explore how Donny lives vicariously through his avatar:
Donny walks up a road, bombs exploding in far away places. Lamb watches the explosions from the safety of the sofa. They combust on another side of the world. There are yellow flames. The sun is out. The sky is blue. Things are on fire. Lamb imagines he’s on fire. Drowning in flames, death imminent. Amy’s plants are already dead. His mother is patiently looking down from heaven. Lamb is an excited tiny zygote.
An animated version of [Donny] twirls a sword as he climbs the stairs of a castle to the song of trumpeters. Cartoon flags blow. Confetti flies. At the top of the staircase, Donny embraces a princess. Donny looks at the television, happy. Almost proud. Lamb wishes he could always feel the way Donny looks right now.
He sits in front of the television. Yellow boxer shorts. Glasses. The game restarts. He is back at the start of his mission. He must travel across hundreds of galaxies again. He must duel aliens in hand to hand combat for interstellar domination again. He must fight for good against evil. He must save the princess again. […] Donny must save the princess from death. From aliens. From a galaxy. From cancer. From a galaxy of cancer.
The difference between passive and active engagement in such activities also becomes apparent. The images in video games are often no different from the images we see on the news of wars in other countries. In the above passages, Donny is actively (however virtually) engaging in hostile activities in a relatively calm manner on his couch (though the narrative depicts him actually doing these things), whereas Lamb is merely a spectator watching Donny’s gaming as if watching something happening far away that he is not emotionally invested in—passively watching it on television.

Lamb’s other roommate and girlfriend, Amy, is almost the complete opposite of Lamb. As his foil, she wants him to feel and behave differently. (Matters are later complicated by the appearance of Lamb’s ex-girlfriend, Irene.) His ennui and lack of ambition, however, do not waver despite Amy’s eagerness to reinforce his momentary lapses of anxiety—to, in essence, remove him from himself:
Amy suggests vegetarianism. “Because it’s healthy,” she says.

Lamb hears the word “healthy” and thinks about his throat. Swallows. Coughs. Tastes the air. It has a strange, stagnant flavor. He coughs again. His face is red. His eyes begin to water.

“What’s wrong?” Amy asks. Concerned.

“I don’t want to be a vegetarian,” Lamb says.

“Why?” Amy says. “We could be healthy. What do you have against vegetarians?”

“I don’t have anything against anything,” Lamb says. He coughs again.

“Then why don’t you want to be a vegetarian?” she asks.

“I don’t want to be anything,” he says.
Oikos is available now for purchase (or for free as an e-Book) from nonpress. Adam Moorad is also the author of Book of Revelations (Artistically Declined Press, 2011), I Went to the Desert (Thunderclap Press, 2010), Prayerbook (wtf pwm, 2010), Collaborative Deconstruction (w/ Ana C., 2010) and The Nurse and the Patient (Pangur Ban Party, 2009). Here is Adam Moorad’s blog.


richard chiem said...

sweet review eric.

more people should read adam.

Eric Beeny said...

Thanks, Richard, I agree...