By Heather Woodbury
Faber and Faber Inc. (2003), $15
What Ever began life as a play: a one-woman, eight-act tour de force by star and author Heather Woodbury, who spent much of the 1980s creating performance art out of her life as a stripper, hitchhiker, and barmaid. Following well-received tours of the United States and Europe and a nationwide broadcast on NPR, Woodbury turned her stage work — which follows hundreds of characters across story lines that span the country and stretch the imagination — into what she calls “a living novel.” But it's really just a script, and readers who haven't seen the play (like me) are likely to find the book lacking in the characterization and emotional depth generally expected of the novelistic form.
As a largely improvised staged piece, What Ever no doubt gained power and subtlety from Woodbury's ability to leap between characters, fleshing them out with accents, mannerisms, and body language. On the page, however, Woodbury's people — ranging from West Coast ravers to Upper East Side octogenarians — remain flat. Also troublesome is Woodbury's decision to spell as her characters speak; inflections and dialects may have served her well onstage, but they get old quickly on the page. To be sure, What Ever has its amusing moments — Kurt Cobain returns as a friendly ghost who haunts a Santa Cruz girl — but not much beyond. The sweeping story line, oddball individuals, and injections of fantasy are obvious nods toward Tony Kushner's Angels in America, but What Ever doesn't share that play's gravitas or intellectual relevance. Instead, the style undermines any poignancy the story generates: Near the end of the book, for instance, a Hell's Kitchen hooker meets a moving and tragic end, only to rise from the dead and dance with her friends at her funeral. It feels like a cheap feel-good ending for a character whose death would have been so much more powerful. But in the spirit of its title and its improvisational origins, What Ever remains too loosely conceived, and too flippant, to offer a genuinely novel conclusion.