Tragedy Underlies This Multigenerational Story of Two East Coast Families | Books and authors
“Signal Fires” by Dani Shapiro; Alfred A. Knopf (240 pages, $28)
Don’t write about accidents, a professor in my college creative writing class once warned. The warning troubled me. Why wouldn’t you write about an accident, with all its inherent drama? Once that happens, she explained, everything stops, the resolution is difficult. I suspect she told us this to avoid having to jot down a series of sophomore short stories from real sophomores.
It’s clear that Dani Shapiro never received this advice or followed it when writing his latest novel, “Signal Fires,” and so much the better. It’s August 27, 1985, when the novel opens, and Sarah Wilf has left her inexperienced 15-year-old brother, Theo, to drive. Theo’s crush, Misty Zimmerman, is in the passenger seat, yawning, stretching, unbuckled. Dread built. Things aren’t going to end well, and they don’t.
Choices beget actions until the inevitable happens: three teenagers wrap a car around a tree and one of them does not survive. How the accident occurs (vividly detailed and choreographed by Shapiro) and how it is handled (never to be discussed again) will haunt the survivors, and those drawn into the accident’s orbit, for the rest of the book.
As a memoirist and novelist, Shapiro is heavily invested in family secrets. She plumbed the depths of her own family in not one but four memoirs. She hosts a podcast called “Family Secrets,” so she knows a thing or two about what happens when families don’t communicate. She’s obviously interested in what people don’t say in “Signal Fires”, but the novel explores so much more – big picture things, like time and how it’s experienced.
The novel swings from the day of the accident to 25 years later, then hopscotch to 1999 and the precipice of the year 2000, to 2020 and the coronavirus, with brief stops in 2014 and 1970. In In this setting, views swing between the Wilfs and the Shenkman family – the Shenkman patriarch, his wife, Alice, and their son, Waldo – who live across Division Street, the very name of the road expressing before and after.
Along this disjointed timeline, Shapiro deepens the characters’ notions of time. Sarah and Theo’s father, Ben, believes “we live life in loops rather than a straight line”, emphasized in the structure of the book, while Sarah “will come to think of lives as books broken up into chapters “, literally the novel itself, and Shenkman will decide – ironically, given what triggers “Signal Fires” – that life “is just a series of accidents, one piled on top of another like one of those huge road accidents you sometimes hear about.
The fall out of time is embodied by Sarah and Theo’s mother, Mimi, who develops dementia. She also loses her sense of place, another of Shapiro’s themes, much like Waldo, whose unfortunate name will make you think “Where’s Waldo?” at times (one of Shapiro’s few missteps). The author is however adept at juxtaposing the magical (not magical realism) and the modern, showing how places can be the same and not the same, and that a place may suit some and not others, but that life can still turn straight.
Is it too much to cling to a single accident? My creative writing teacher might have thought so, but I don’t. Yes, Shapiro goes far in “Signal Fires,” but it pays off. His crisp prose propels the reader forward: I wanted to know what was going to happen to the characters and at the same time I was fascinated by metaphysics. It’s definitely a novel worth reading.