Ali Benjamin's The Smash-Up is a satisfying reinterpretation of Ethan Frome, the Edith Wharton classic

  • The Smash-Up, by Ali Benjamin. Riverrun, $32.99.

The action in Ali Benjamin's debut novel, The Smash-Up, takes place at the height of America's Trump-induced nervous breakdown.

While Justice Brett Kavanaugh's contentious Senate confirmation hearings lurch towards their unsatisfactory conclusion, Zo and Ethan Frome's lives begin to unravel (yes, The Smash-Up is a modern reinterpretation of Edith Wharton's Ethan Frome, that bleak tale of a man, his miserable wife, and a secret love affair).

Benjamin's book opens with a not-so-neutral narrator trying to come to terms with the dislocations brought about by Donald Trump's election.

"It was surreal, it was unreal, it was scandal [...] There was resentment and rage, hucksters and hackers, bots and Nazis [...] and the only thing any of us knew for sure was this: on the ninth day of the eleventh month of the year of our lord two thousand and sixteen, our nation-and with it the world we'd known-had turned upside down."

For Zo Frome, this upside-downness manifests itself in a state of near-constant rage.

The documentary filmmaker retreats from Ethan and their ADHD-afflicted 11-year-old daughter, and devotes most of her time to buying furniture they can't afford, hanging out with a group of like-minded malcontents who go by All Them Witches, and chewing out customer service representatives over the phone.

She also takes up boxing.

"She punches things: a bag mostly, but sometimes she gets into a ring and spars with actual human beings. Unnerving, really," deadpans the narrator.

If anyone has reason to wonder "What happened?", it's Ethan.

The one-time darling of the New York start-up scene is beset by money worries, contending with professional irrelevance, and married to someone he barely recognises.

Standing in his kitchen watching a meeting of All Them Witches wind down one night, Ethan catches a fleeting glimpse of the pre-election Zo, "the one who was clever and grounded, who could find the funny in anything, until anger settled inside her like an unwelcome squatter".

It's hardly surprising, therefore, that Ethan says "yes" when temptation presents itself. Apart from anything else, we know how this Whartonian tale is going to end, and it isn't pretty.

What is surprising is just how satisfying Benjamin's resolution is.

While there's undoubtedly a case to be made for 'maintaining the rage', The Smash-Up cautions against losing sight of what's happening closer to home and reminds us to stop and ask ourselves, "What's next?"

This story A satisfying re-telling of a Wharton classic first appeared on The Canberra Times.