It is hard to be both heartfelt and earnest, while also being world-wise and wry. They usually cancel each other out in a battle-royale style cage match of competing ideals, but somehow in this novel, they coexist. And the comfortable peace they have made with each other results in an excellent read.

This is Alex Shakar’s first novel, but you’d never know it. He is deft and confident in his storytelling. He handles having a protagonist of the opposite gender with great finesse and utter believability, which is rare enough generally, but more so for a man writing in a woman’s voice. There is almost always something missing, or added that should not be. Shakar speaks as Ursula with complete veracity, and I admire that.

Ursula is a character that is altogether easily liked. She is smart and determined, though it isn’t always clear to her just what she is determined to do. She is picking her way through the aftermath of a dramatic family crisis, and trying to build a world around herself that makes sense. She lives in a large city perched on the side of a volcano, and you get the sense that this very clearly demonstrates the volatile energy that both she and the city are possessed by.

For in addition to her own struggle to decide who she is, her younger sister Ivy is engaged in a much more literal struggle to determine this. She’s suffered a psychotic break and is suffering from intense schizophrenia. Somehow the mental and emotional arc of these sisters is remarkably similar, and appears to vary mostly in terms of intensity, rather than content.

The portrayal of mental illness in this book is different than any i have ever encountered. It seeks to discuss it in terms that are immediately relateable and easy for people who’ve never dealt with it to take in. Catatonia is described, rather than being a lack of awareness, as a response to stimulus overload. The body and mind cannot function with all of the input currently in play, and so in self-defense, all systems lock in place to allow processing to take place. Likewise the way Shakar describes Ivy’s paranoia makes it all too easy to see that, she might be crazy, but she also has a point.

At least, Ursula does. She has taken a job in marketing and finds herself trying to absorb all the countless ways in which we are manipulated every moment of our lives, without losing a grip on a kinder gentler version of reality.Her job has essentially become to watch and observe people so as to use the information to compel them to act in a particular way. Not too far from Ivy’s version of the truth, after all…

Throughout the book Shakar drops in little mini-lectures on advertising and the marketing mindset. Having read this novel several years before Mad Men came out, I recognized many of the compelling themes in that excellent show to have been touched upon here. One of the characters Chas delivers a speech to his clients not unlike the one Don Draper gives to his cohorts. How, not only to exploit desire, but how to create it where none currently exists. It is almost a treatise on consumerism, and it is compelling and deeply though provoking.

As is, to my mind, this whole book. It creates a world where there is a serious push toward and market for diet water. Finding the means to sell this absurdity become Ursula’s job, and though she is appalled at the notion of doing so on some core level, she is also seduced by the notion that she might have the skills to do so. The capacity to enchant a whole population into doing her will. Into traveling lite.