In Notes from Underground, Fyodor Dostoevsky famously asserts the unpredictability of human beings against the determinist dogmas of his contemporary philosophical moment. Over a century later, his sentiments have been reincarnated in Check, Please, a novella by Robin Dembroff, a junior of the Torrey Honors Institute and Biola University (available for download on Lulu: http://www.lulu.com/content/paperback-book/check-please/7538386). Her work presents a retelling of Dante’s Inferno, as expressed through the narrative style of Kurt Vonnegut. Dembroff’s philosophical, theological, and social commentary reflects, proportionally, the ambition of her Florentine forerunner. Dembroff’s emphasis, however, is highlighted in the recurring motif concerning the substance and consequences of free will as expressed through her contemporized iteration of hell and compounded by a penetrating narrative style.
The story centers on Nimai Tarrish (Tawr-ish, not Tare-ish), a student at the midpoint of her undergraduate life at UCLA. The reader first encounters Nimai at the outset of her venture into the dark, Oregonian woods. A sudden car accident quickly initiates Nimai’s ensuing entrance into the Dantean narrative. She meets Dante, who serves as her guide into hell, or the American Nightmare as it is known, an infernal parody of the American Dream. In the spirit of Dante’s Inferno, Nimai treks through the various sublevels of the Nightmare, eventually ending up in the pristine executive suite of Satana, wherein the accrued lessons of Nimai’s experiences are put to the final and cruelest examination.
One might attribute the affective power of Check, Please to its poignant narrative style. In the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut, the prose attempts to establish a narrative rhythm, leading the reader along at a disarmingly smooth pace before building into piercing crescendos of meaning. This style reflects the internal condition of the protagonist, who moves from a rhythm of complacent sarcasm into climactic moments of self-knowledge. Using a technique that places her style somewhere between a medieval morality play and the film Fight Club, Dembroff embeds pointed observations or reflections throughout the narration. “More is less,” says the narrator in the circle of wrath. Statements like this do not so much advance the narrative in terms of plot, but rather create dilation within the discourse, a moment of suspension of progress that provides the reader with both the time and tools for contemplating the section that he or she has just traversed. As such, though the novella is brief in terms of pages, its keen and precise declarations provide opportunity for expansive meditation.
Dembroff’s narrative prowess, however, ubiquitously serves the end of emphasizing the import of human choices and their consequences. Founded on a schema of distributive justice, the American Nightmare is organized so that people are assigned to the area that best serves the ends towards which their souls’ dispositions were aimed. In other words, people get exactly that for which they were searching. As Eliot puts it, “the end was beyond what you figured;” you get what you choose. Continually reinforcing this powerful theme are the words of Dante: “Aren’t choices great?” Nimai’s answer to this question changes as the story progresses, and this development helps to clarify the ways in which she is changed as a result of her infernal journey. While she starts with the opinion that “choices are the human contribution to damnation,” there is a shift, and by the end finds that the ability to choose, the acknowledgement that “I can still hope to turn,” is that which saves her.
While there are many topics addressed in Check, Please, it is not a book of answers, but rather a vindication of asking good questions. This, again, reflects the theme of choices. One must not stagnate, one must continue ever further up and further in. The souls in the Nightmare did not get there because of wrath or lust, per se. Rather, it was that very loss of hope to turn. “Ask and it is given/ Promise ever kept” reads the doorway to hell, and it leaves one to wonder whether in a world wherein people get what they ask for, if it is not asking for the wrong thing, but failing to keep trying to ask for the best thing that leads one to the Nightmare. “How could they have come to the right questions?” Nimai asks. “By asking,” replies Dante. It is from this sentiment that Check, Please exhorts the reader, despite the difficulty, to pursue the path of intrepid curiosity.
Aren’t choices great? Check, Please inspires within us a genuine assent.