If you dig a little bit, you'll discover that people have created all manner of tributes to couches. There's a country waltz by Johnny Bond named "Old Couch," a sad farewell from a man to
his favorite piece of furniture as he consigns it to the trash heap. Aaron Tippin wrote a schlocky tribute to his couch as the other woman in his marriage:
Well, sometimes I wish we'd bought the kind/That folds out into a bed/But it ain't too bad if you lay on your side/And use the armrest for your head/Yeah, the springs are sprung and the center sags/And the stuffing is sticking out/But it's times like these she ain't happy with me/I thank God for this old couch.
Couches have a weird totemic power. There aren't nearly as many pieces of art about desks, for instance, and songs and poems about chairs generally have to do more with the lonely person sitting in them than the chair itself. And there's some pain mixed in with the pleasure, too: Just about any adult who's lived on their own knows the mundane agony and awkwardness involved with moving a couch from one apartment to another, or the vexation involved with getting rid of a ratty old couch when no thrift store will take it as a donation.
The three apathetic, underemployed young roommates who star in Benjamin Parzybok's new novel, Couch, understand that particular pain very well. Thom is a giant of a man and a computer hacker with a cult following, but in real life he's so tentative, about relationships and work and everything else, he may as well not exist. Eric would like to be a master con artist, but he's not very bright or good at manipulating people. Tree is a quiet, weird man who's prone to looking at his roommates with "the quality of squint on his face [like] that of a child before he asks why whales don't have fingers." When their apartment floods, the trio have to carry their couch to Goodwill.
None of them knows where the couch came from—it appears to be handmade, and the fabric and stitching stymie any efforts to cut the thing open and look inside. And soon enough they realize that the couch gets heavier when they try to drag it in a direction the couch doesn't want to go:
"Okay," Thom said, "Let's think for a minute, let's be sane, let's theorize. Let's just for a minute take it for granted that this is a magical couch—or technology advanced to a state that we think of it as magic. First of all, we'd have to admit the presence of magic in a world that is generally devoid of it."
As though under some weird power, they decide to take the couch where it wants to go. Their journey stretches from Portland, Oregon, to South America, and they discover that evil forces want the couch for their own nefarious purposes. Everyone they meet has a theory about the couch—someone says during the Cold War, the USSR tried to create a couch that would inspire a sense of apathy in whoever sat on the thing, while others claim that a long time ago, a witch infused the couch with a soul and that soul is now telling the men where to take it.
In time, the three questing characters begin to look very familiar. Thom becomes more of a fighter, Tree starts having portentous dreams, and Eric sharpens into a dashing rogue. They begin to resemble, then, the three archetypal characters in any fantasy novel written since J. R. R. Tolkien first published The Lord of the Rings trilogy—the knight, the wizard, and the thief—and Couch becomes a fantasy epic set on contemporary earth.
Besides romance, fantasy is perhaps the last of the popular genres to get an overhaul for the 21st century. Not much has changed in the genre since the invention of Bilbo Baggins. Hundreds of writers have slavishly imitated—or outright ripped off—Tolkien in ways that connoisseurs of other genres would consider shameless. What Parzybok has done here in adapting the same old song to a world more familiar to the reader is to revive the genre and make it relevant again. And by making the magical MacGuffin a beloved household item that nearly everyone has a complicated relationship with, he gives the story the depth and allure of the best modern literary fiction.
Our heroes battle sharks and men with guns as they shepherd the couch to its destination. They nearly starve to death and they fight among themselves and the couch gets hit by a train. But the real enemies in Couch are apathy and cynicism and doubt, and, in keeping with the spirit of the genre, they slay the monsters handily.
Benjamin Parzybok reads Mon Nov 17, Elliott Bay Book Company, 7:30 pm, free.