“Remarkably Bright Creatures,” the debut novel of American author Shelby Van Pelt, has a rotating cast of point-of-view characters. They include Ethan, a grocer in the small coastal town of Sowell Bay, Washington; Tova, a janitor at the town’s aquarium; and Cameron, who plays guitar for Moth Sausage, a bound-for-breakup bar band in California.
But Van Pelt lets only one character narrate their own chapters in the first person. That would be Marcellus, the 27-kilogram giant Pacific octopus whose tank Tova wipes free of visitors’ greasy fingerprints every night.
Tova is an older woman whose friends keep advising her to retire. But at their regular gatherings, she often “feels as if she is a mistaken jigsaw piece who found her way into the wrong puzzle.” Her friends love chatting about their children and grandchildren, but Tova’s only child disappeared as a teenager many years ago and is presumed dead. At least when she talks to Marcellus during her nightly rounds, he doesn’t offer unwelcome advice.
Unbeknownst to Tova, however, Marcellus does understand her. In addition to having two eyes, eight legs and three hearts, Marcellus informs the reader that “my neurons number half a billion.” Stuck in a tank with all that idle brainpower, he has made a study of the humans who peer at him from the other side of the glass.
Marcellus sometimes reminded this reviewer of Data, the android character from “Star Trek,” in that his observations of humanity can be insightful and off-kilter at the same time. He finds it exasperating, for example, how often human small talk involves utterances like “Can you believe this weather we’re having?”
“Sun, rain, clouds, fog, hail, sleet, snow,” the octopus harrumphs. “Human beings have walked their earth on two feet for hundreds of millennia. One might think they would believe it already.”
Marcellus is lonely, and he recognizes loneliness in Tova. And they’re not the only ones — Ethan is a Scot who wound up in America due to an ill-fated romance, after which he resolved never to “chase a lass” again. And Cameron, raised by an aunt after the disappearance of his drug-addicted mother, reacts to a stranger waxing sentimental about family by “feeling yet again like an intruder spying on the typical human experience, an outsider looking in on the normal, which is always just out of his grasp.”
It’s the octopus who has the best grasp on what some of these people need in their lives. If only he could tell them. But despite his intelligence, he can neither speak nor write.
To make matters worse, time is running out. Marcellus is keenly aware that he is nearing the end of his species’ average four-year lifespan. And when Tova’s elderly friend Mary Ann leaves town to move in with an adult daughter, Tova reflects that Mary Ann has just written “the first sentence of her last chapter.” This gets Tova thinking about how to prepare for her own final chapter.
By the close of “Remarkably Bright Creatures,” Van Pelt weaves the various plot threads into a conclusion that will touch all three of your hearts.
Or just your one heart, if you’re an exasperating biped.