It’s always intriguing to read novels that utilize different forms of entertainment as plot devices and methods for relaying themes. Novels about poets, dancers, actors, writers of works of fiction within the fiction. Stories that hinge on the creative ambitions of its characters, when told effectively, have a certain personal affect that mirrors the imaginative forces within ourselves.
Benjamin Rybeck’s debut novel, The Sadness, employs film, and the people caught up in its magic, as its medium for dispensing its wisdom and wide range of emotions. Despite its title, there is a hearty amount of laughter to be found in these pages. The closest comparison that can be made to Rybeck’s foray into the novel form is maybe Owen King’s Double Feature—another novel that uses cult films and fractured families to untangle its intricate plot.
Set in the late-2012, amidst frigid cold winds and snow falling down on the small town of Portland, Maine, The Sadness tells the tale of Max and Kelly—siblings separated by the turmoil of a deceased mother, the absence of a father, and the complexities of finding a rhythm in adult life. Kelly returns home to Portland after a cryptic phone call from someone she presumes to be the girlfriend of her father. Out-of-luck and money, she arrives to find her brother doing much of the same as when he last saw her.
Max is a quasi-Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces, a man quite obviously not right in the mind, but remarkably intelligent nonetheless. Max, like Reilly, is convinced of his own genius, and has been working on his masterwork, The Glazen Shelves, since high school. The only problem is that his lead actress, Evelyn, has disappeared, and the great film to come out of the small town, Land Without Water, has already been released—much to Max’s displeasure.
It happens that “Day Without Water,” an annual festival in Portland has brought Penelope, Kelly’s high school best friend and star of Land Without Water, back into town. Max has come to believe that Evelyn’s disappearance is somehow linked to the reclusive director, Darren Stanford.
Thus, Max and Kelly set off on an adventure to uncover the truth. Max searches out for Evelyn and Kelly seeks their father, and these two events, can only be accomplished with the help of one another.
Rybeck expertly weaves these plot threads into a galloping page turner that doesn’t let up until the final page. For film buffs, there is a lot to latch onto in The Sadness, but the real strength of the book lies in its ability to demonstrate how outward ambitions don’t always reflect our internal struggles. Max and Kelly are, in many respects, early-thirty-somethings who have never really exited childhood. They are fractured, broken people who are both infuriating and enlightening, but most of all, they are relatable to those of us who have struggled to let go of the past and move forward.
With a narrative style that feels as if Rybeck himself is holding the camera as an all-knowing member of this small town, The Sadness is introspective and surveying all at once. Humor and sadness converge in unexpected ways as we learn the difference between Land Without Water and The Glazen Shelves.
“All great filmmaking beats with the pulse of The Sadness. A director stands on the precipice in anxiety or in misery, his or her life on the verge of ending.”
The Sadness is about siblings, lost mothers and fathers, obsessions and longings, and the consummate desire to become something greater than ourselves.
Like Double Feature and Marisha Pessl’s Night Film, Ben Rybeck’s The Sadness is a sterling example of implementing film within a novel.