Gregory Sherl’s debut novel “The Future for Curious People” had promise of being a quick, satisfying read. It had an interesting premise with lavish praise by fellow authors on the back, so I thought it would be a great way to pass the time—but I quickly realized that I was reading the print equivalent of a shitty rom com without the benefit of a hot actor playing the male lead.
It’s a 20-minutes-into-the-future type story, set in Baltimore somewhere around Hampden and Mount Vernon (which are apparently contiguous in Sherl’s Baltimore), and told as a first-person narrative with the two main characters, Evelyn Shriner and Godfrey Burkes, alternating chapters. There’s a technology called envisioning (which, not that you should care, but—spoiler alert—turns out to be a scam) where you can see how your future with your romantic partner will turn out, kind of like a paper fortune teller you might have used when you were 10.
Evelyn is obsessed with it and breaks up with her long-term boyfriend because their fake future looks boring. Godfrey is a pathetic man-child who is afraid of his shrewish, bullying girlfriend Madge, but he just proposed to her and she won’t accept his proposal until they get envisioning sessions.
Cue the meet at Dr. Chin’s office between Evelyn and Godfrey, where of course they want to fuck each other badly. After much blathering for the next hundred or so pages, they eventually meet again, after Godfrey drunkenly looks her up in the White Pages at a payphone (implausibility aside) and throws rocks at her window. He sleeps over, but forgets to tell her he’s engaged—oops! Cue the heartbreak and extended drama, and add in a whole bunch of wacky hi-jinx on the way to them finally getting together. Evelyn of course forgives him for lying to her about being engaged, and Madge shacks up with Evelyn’s recent ex anyway! True love prevails in the end and everyone gets to fuck who they wanted to all along.
Moving on to the real problems with Sherl’s novel: the abundance of tired tropes and problematic characterization of just about everything. Despite being set in Baltimore, every single important character is white, with the exception of Mr. Gupta, the manager at the unnamed library (probably the Enoch Pratt Free Library) who is a caricature of an Indian person. The only possibly black characters are merely mentioned briefly by name—Keisha, Cherelle, and Fadra, which I suppose is how we’re supposed to tell their ethnicity. The only lines these women get (if any) are to tell Evelyn how grateful they are that she works at the library, because, as Keisha says, “If it weren’t for you, I’d be doing meth in an IHOP bathroom.” Evelyn really lets her white savior flag fly in a conversation with her friend Dot, when talking about her volunteer work: “I want to tell her that if not for me, a lot of the children of Baltimore”—aka the black kids—“would be doing meth in dark basements, but that’s not completely verified.”
In addition to her undiagnosed white savior complex, Evelyn is characterized as a weirdly naive idiot with a few Manic Pixie Dream Girl-esque quirks. She’s an ethereal creature with endless energy, and she wears rain boots that she’s glued fake flowers to. She’s volunteered to make recordings of books for the blind (despite the existence of books of tape narrated by professionals), but gets really sad while reading “The Great Gatsby” aloud—so she decides to change the ending to make it happy. Godfrey is clearly miserable in his current relationship and sees Evelyn as a perfect thing to make everything right—which of course is the basis of every healthy relationship.
She’s just one example of the terrible way Sherl creates his female characters. They’re either shrews and nags or they’re completely clueless and wandering around in life hoping to bump into something to make them whole, or at least less broken. It’s difficult to care about their growth through the story at all, not that there was any growth done by any character, male or female.
I should mention that I was partway through the book and hating it already when I looked Sherl up and found that there have been multiple allegations of abuse levied against him. I tried to be impartial and read the rest of the novel for what it was, but these allegations shed light on why Sherl wrote his female characters the way he did. His male characters worship his female characters, though they are manipulative and/or empty of any personality. It’s disturbing to read this knowing that he explicitly saw himself in the characters and glorified those abusive interactions as love.
Even beyond all the problematic characterization, Sherl just can’t write that well. His dialogue all scans identical, making every character sound like a 20-something white dude who thinks he makes clever observations and has something important to say. Take away all the unnecessarily descriptive dialogue tags, and every character is just a Sherl proxy spouting off his truth and wisdom about how love and relationships work. He says as much in his pretentious author’s note, noting that he sees himself in every character.
To top it all off, there’s the ridiculous treatment of Baltimore in renaming of some locations like Cafe Hon to Cafe Honeybun and Club K to Club Q, which were the only parts where I laughed out loud.
“The Future for Curious People” seems to aim at exploring the meaning of love and relationships and the conundrum of endless possibility. Instead, it reads as a trivial romance novel, sharing all the hallmarks of that genre: the contrived plot with fantastical elements to make it seem edgy, the flat characters who serve no real purpose but to move the plot along, and the horribly cliched prose that sounds like it was written by someone who loved “Eat, Pray, Love.”