Amalie Price’s husband has died. In the car with Stewart’s body, the investigators find a woman’s scarf. It is not Amalie’s, and nearly a year later she still remembers the scent of the fabric. Her teenage son, Charlie, carries on his dead father’s passion for activism with the headstrongness that always stultified Amalie when Stewart pursued his own causes. Saving the building in which the two survivors share an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, purchased by a dutifully shady and vague development company, becomes Stewart’s legacy, the torch Amalie carries throughout Amalie In Orbit, a short novel of mourning by Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer.
If Kirchheimer set out to create the kind of vicarious suffering, the sort of therapeutic working through of the death of a spouse found in Joan Didion’s powerful memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, she has certainly failed. Amalie’s musings never run that deep, and the loss is felt most strongly in her lack of sexual fulfillment. However, as a post-modern comedy about the ridiculousness of corporate life and the yuppie strivings of a generation of baby boomers coming of age after a prolonged adolescence, Amalie in Orbit offers the hilarious and mundane details of a prime DeLillo novel. Kirchheimer buries the reader in microfilm, Xeroxes, electric typewriters, bright green skirt suits, mother of pearl manicures, balding self-obsessed nonprofit executives, and nauseatingly precocious offspring.
But sometimes through this emotionally flat haze of modern life burn moments of real tenderness. Early in the book, Kirchheimer describes a view from one of the windows of the Upper West Side flat that she is trying to save:
"A freighter floated by on the Hudson which was visible from the kitchen window as a two-inch gap between buildings on Riverside Drive, two blocks away. How Stewart had loved this view. On weekend mornings, he stationed himself by the window and at 10:27 came the call: ‘Quick, honey, there’s the Dayliner.’ Sometimes barges came down from Albany or oil tankers that filled the space like a hallucination.”
Most of the novel, however, is written in an unadorned schmaltzy style that fits well with Amalie’s self-righteous and intensely entitled and proud perspective. When Charlie is arrested outside of the Dow Chemical building, Amalie brings a “survival kit” on the subway ride to the courthouse, as if, in all her years living in New York, she has never had to take the subway, as if she needs a caravan of provisions to survive in this dirty, scary city of hers. On the same note, the many romantic entanglements at Marshall Berger Micropubs—a wasteland publishing office of relics, and what seems to be Amalie’s first job in her whole privileged life—seem disingenuous. These people, if Kirchheimer could grasp them, would all screw and get it over with.
The plot brings Amalie’s life to a head when her son’s girlfriend suffers a phantom pregnancy, Marshall Berger Micropubs and all the ancillary sexual lust that Amalie attaches to the company moves to a Vermont commune, and her estranged father resurfaces in her life at some amalgamated intellectual conference where she tries and fails to seduce her married coworker. When the most exciting New York moment in this first novel involves Amalie visiting with her elderly neighbor at a performance art concert at the church across the street from their building, the reader longs for the disgustingly violent self-absorption of the 80s New York found in the work of Bret Easton Ellis or Jay McInerney.
Maybe these are the points that Kirchheimer is trying to make: a glorified city and time period of grit was nothing more than an edgy prelude to the luxury city we see today, and the irony of the New York experience for the second half of the 20th century is that though literary types have long clung to these streets, they’ve been bone dry of substance for too long.
Marshall Berger, Amalie’s confused and pitiful boss, takes a trip up to his Vermont colony compound by himself and ends up stuck in his car on a bridge in flooding waters. We laugh along with the locals that Kirchheimer derides as mountain people and rednecks with packs of wild dogs:
“‘I can’t swim!’ he shouted and waved his arms. The group on the bank turned around and took off, away from him. In a second not a soul was left. They don’t want to see it, not their responsibility. My will is in order, Marshall thought, hanging on to the door handle.”
Just like those onlookers, we walk away from Amalie in Orbit insulted and shaking our heads.