A Family Romance


By Stephen Wright

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A “beautiful and terrifying” novel about family, faith, and the search for home (San Francisco Chronicle), set amidst a community of UFO cultists in middlest America.

As regular guests on late-night radio shows, Dash and Dot are the world’s most in-demand lecturers on the topic of UFOs and alien abduction. They believe that we are all descended from M31, the nearest galaxy to ours, and divide their time between life on the road and a decommissioned church in the Midwest. A radar dish on its steeple and a spaceship in its sanctuary complete the modern nuclear-family setting.

When a couple of UFO groupies arrive at the church with their own agenda, everything changes, brought to a head by their strange beliefs and the timeless difficulties of modern life. Dash and Dot set out on their last trip, their ultimate journey, with a destination that no one could foretell. Written with a fevered vividness and immediacy, M31: A Family Romance has been hailed as “a devastatingly forceful accomplishment” from “a star of the first magnitude” (the Washington Post).


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"That? That there?"

Their green faces hovered balloonlike over the warm radar screen. The antique equipment popped and fizzed.

"The big blobby thing."

"Move your finger."

"Look, it's moving."


"It's getting bigger."


"It's miles and miles."

"This here?"

"What is that?"

"You tell me."

"I don't know."

"Say it."

"The mother ship?"

"Come to carry us home, yeah, and all the people who ever died, and all their luggage, too, are there smiling and waving and chewing on cotton candy."

Edsel's mouth clapped shut as suddenly as a ventriloquist's dummy's and he swung around in his seat, propped his skinny elbows in front of the screen, and leaned forward with exaggerated intent, hands clamped over his ears, scuffed sneakers dangling above the sloping floor, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you.

"Thunderstorms, herbert, remember? Fucking thunderstorms."

Tiny arms turned in the shining ovals of his eyes.

Dallas moved his lips in close, hissing wet obscenities into the back of his brother's small freckled hand. Then he pushed himself away from the table, the folding wooden chair scraping across bare boards, collapsing in an explosive slap as he stood up. His profile, the broken nose, the ECT hair, was silhouetted against a stained-glass scene of quaint kneeling figures in Friar Tuck robes lifting flat, badly proportioned eyes to a burning in a violet sky. Dallas stared down at the back of Edsel's skull, an ostrich egg pasted with dry pale hair. "Okay," he said. He stared down at the thin bunched shoulders. "Knock yourself out. I'm going to see about Poly." The screen was making a sound like tires on fresh asphalt.

Silently his bare feet descended the narrow spiral staircase from the choir loft to a floor pockmarked by clusters of screw-holes and worn into a pattern distinct and gridlike. In the center of this long open room, between the facing rows of high uncurtained windows, sat an ellipsoidal metallic construction bigger than a diving bell and obviously bolted together over time by various hands employing available material, zinc plate, roof tin, brass sheeting, and other junkyard scrap. From its patchwork interior came the rustle of female voices:

"The light?"


"Bright and heavy, it's been like that a lot lately."

"So when my eyes came open I could see him clearly standing there bare-assed and gripping the windowsill and gaping up at the moon like he was about to turn into something awful. Scared the shit out of me. His skin was so weird. It looked like the moon and his body were made out of the same stuff."

"He used to sleepwalk almost every night when he was a kid. Sometimes Father would tie him down to the bed."

"I don't think he was asleep."


"His tube was on."

Dallas stepped behind a plasterboard partition where something was bubbling in a pot on the stove. He got a can of beer from the wheezing refrigerator and padded quietly back into the other room, his attention ambushed for a moment by the soundless television set in the corner where a woman's angry face alternated with a man's angry face in an apartment full of plants and designer furniture. He popped the tab on the beer can. "I heard that," said one of the female voices. Maryse. Her head was stuffed with kapok. He slipped quickly out the open door into the failing afternoon. A wind was beginning to stir the stalks of corn in the fields falling away under the anvil of a summer thunderhead. The sun, already buried beneath the advancing storm, continued to rise out of the stone steps under his feet in soft steady waves; it pulsed in the iron railing under his hand. He looked down. Feet. Funny word, funny parts: they were too narrow or too long or too far away. Veins slithered over them like squiggly blue worms. Everything either stayed the same too long or turned into something else too fast. A place was many places all at once. This corn was also pink and the sky a polyurethane glitter above the flashing steel wires stretched taut and parallel out into the plastic bridge horizon and his feet?…his feet were fins. He was already there: where they all wanted to be.

He shuffled out into the middle of a scraggly patch of lawn, blades of spiky crabgrass tickling his ankles, and stood there, scratching at his navel and drinking in the dramatic atmospherics, the long drafts of cold beer. Moving in from the west was a plow of high clouds as dark as the earth it seemed to be overturning. Fissures of white opened and closed across its shifting surface. The wind made him aware of the shape of his face and drove the savory smell of warm shit deep into his nostrils. God, he loved the country. Off to the east, where plows run up against concrete, Dash and Dot were walking the same streets, eating the same food, breathing the same air! as Vic and the Vectors. He was here. Here. He tilted his head and let the beer drain down his throat, then, rearing back, heaved the empty can clattering down the gray gravel road. Behind him loomed the church, solid black from foundation to steeple where revolved the small dish antenna, a black angular shape as flat in appearance as a shadow cast from something unseen in the distant sky.

Around back in the old cemetery he found Poly, as he knew he would, munching on her favorite delicacy—graveyard grass. "C'mon Poly, let's go," his hand raising puffs of dust on her bony rump. The goat edged away, wide eyes, busy mouth. Headstones, tilted, chipped, and broken, were strewn about like loose teeth, names and dates blurring away into the discolored mossy stone. All Dallas knew was these people had all been dead a long time. Overhead the thick heavy branches of the cemetery tree began to sway, the leaves to flick back and forth like magician's cards. Around the base of the trunk he found an aerosol can of red paint. He shook it noisily, tested the nozzle in the air, and, bending over, wrote across





the letters BOF. Similar scrawls decorated other graves: BULLOCKS, OI, RHINO. "Hey"—he aimed the can at the goat—"wanna be an Irish setter?" Poly chewed on, oblivious. Dallas bounced the can off the tree. He hooked his fingers under the dog collar on Poly's neck and tugged her resisting bleating body around to the front door—the air now charged with ozone—and up the steps and into the church, brittle hooves exploding across the floor like firecrackers.

A woman's head popped like a jack-in-the-box out of the top of the metal egg, "What the hell!" in a shriek known to younger brothers everywhere. Trinity. His sister. Once when she was four and a beautiful Princess living in a Magic Tower, a nasty goblin left outside the castle door a basket of tears and bad smells that Mommy and Daddy actually believed was cute, and for many more nights than there were fingers and toes to count to she had wished on the star outside her window that in the morning when she awoke baby would still be sleeping and would go on sleeping forever and ever. She had no memory of this at all. She had black hair and gray eyes and wore fire-engine-red lipstick day and night, a slash of color as unexpected out here as a Porsche in a beanfield.

"It's gonna rain," Dallas said. On the television set the same pair of faces was now pressed together in an action clearly involving the use of both tongues.

"I don't care if it's gonna shit bricks."

He was fascinated by her beetle lips preparing to fly away home.

"What have you been told about that animal in the house?" It was not a question.

"Blah-blah-blah. Maryse," he called. "Hey, Maryse." Anger was a cloud twisting up.

Out popped a second head too wasted to pass for a puppet of any kind, the only coloring on her face the velvety bruise-tinged half-moon under each eye.

"Hey, Maryse, I remembered that dream."

"I don't want to hear about it." Lanky hair was tucked behind protruding ears.

"You and I, see, were on this street—no, it was this bare room, only I wasn't there, I was on night shift at the pork plant and—"

"I really don't want to hear this, Dallas."

"There were other bodies in there with you in the dark, but you were the only one who wasn't—"

"Get that goddamn beast out of here!" Trinity shouted.

Poly was eating one of the photographs off the wall, methodically pulling into her mouth a glossy image of an unfocused hubcap sailing out over the scraggly tips of a couple pine.

"And then somehow I was there and we found a broken light bulb and squatted in a corner, sharing, first you bit, then me, you, me, you, me."

Trinity's head sank from sight, leaving Maryse and her eight white fingers gripping the rim of the hatch like something growing out of a jar. She emerged from around back, moving briskly and brandishing a plastic fly swatter. Dallas reached out an arm. "Leave her alone." The swatter slapped against the side of his head. At the sound Poly darted through the space between the partitioning boards and into the kitchen, hooves clicking on the linoleum. "Stay here," Trinity ordered, going in after her. Dallas heard a shout, a crack, a brief interlude of frantic tap dancing, a bang, a crash, a curse, before an accelerating mass of fur and legs exited the kitchen at a velocity and an angle too late for him to do anything but try to protect his head with his arms as the force of a rolled-up rug whacked into his ribs, dropping his dead weight to the boards behind the stubby tail of a frightened goat flying through the open doorway like a gazelle.

"You okay?" asked Trinity, bending down over Dallas's fish-on-dry-land routine.

"Knocked," he gasped, cheeks going in and out, "the wind…out…of me." In between his own sounds he thought he could hear laughter from inside the egg.

"I think you might have been unconscious there for a second or two," said Trinity. She was wiping at a huge blotch of spaghetti sauce on her shirt with a blue sponge.

"It's as big as a house," announced Edsel, short tanned arms dangling over the railing above their heads. "What's going on? Dallas was saying bad words before."

"Jesus." Of course, the stain kept growing the harder she rubbed, that was a law. "Might as well be running a full-time daycare in here, too, try to turn a profit on all this damn brat tending. Tell you this, next time Mother and Father hit the road they can take you two along, help polish Zoe's football helmet or something. Because if I liked policework, I would have become a nun. How many beers have you had today, anyway?"

The stars overhead still refused to make sense. If his father had had any specific constellations in mind when he painted them up there on the ceiling, he hadn't told anyone. Upside down the silent mouths on TV opened and closed like cyclopes' eyes with teeth. "Fuck you," Dallas mumbled.

"See," proclaimed Edsel, disappearing behind the rail.

"Babies." Squatting, Trinity began to pick up the chewed bits of photograph. "This family should be driven around in a van and displayed at pro-abortion rallies."

Dallas rolled onto his side, searching along the floor for something loose to throw when his eyes flicked instinctively toward the door. Two white faces hung there like lanterns between the frame, watching. The man's smile gleamed from a tentative beardlike growth resembling stringy black mold, the woman's was metallic and fixed by rubber bands. Behind them the sky slid by thick as molten rock.

"I should number the cans," Trinity was saying, her back to the room, "and start rationing it out one can at a time like they did on the USS Dewey Dell or the Rat Fink or whatever the hell it was that Father"—and turning—"oh."

"Hi," said the man in an affable radio voice, arm half-lifted in shy greeting. "I'm Beale. This is Gwen." Gwen's smile broadened on a glitter of orthodontia and extended rubber bands that seemed to connect her jaw to the rest of her head. "She's a five-time contactee." Her dimples were deep enough to stick raisins into.

"Hi," said Trinity, cupped hand held stiffly at her waist. She caught Dallas's eye, and in an instant: These are goofs.

Grade A Prime.

Let's run 'em out.

Let's play.

Beale poked his shaggy head in and surveyed the interior with a paying tourist's avid curiosity. "Ohmigod," he exclaimed, pointing, "The Object!" Smiling Gwen smiled silently. "The actual Object, exactly as Dash and Dot described it. I can't believe this. It's like a living museum. And you guys must be the children."

"Their creatures," admitted Trinity. "Yes."

Dallas regarded the visitors from a prone position. They seemed to be wearing astronauts' life support units on their backs. "I'm Dallas," he said. "The ugly one."

Trinity extended an arm, opened a hand, and slick confetti sprinkled down over her brother's head. "You can probably get a better view from inside," she said.

"Thank you," said Beale. "Hate to impose." They came clinking through the door, assorted metal objects dangling from their belts. Beale nodded once at Dallas. "Here's someone who knows how to relax." He twisted his shoulders free of the straps and allowed the equipment to clatter to the floor. Clipped to the pocket of his plaid maroon shirt were several disposable pens and yellow pencils. There were salt stains under the armpits. The pants were a strange shade somewhere between green and blue. The shoes were tan work boots. "Wasn't real sure we'd ever find it."

"I could see this place in my mind all the time," said Gwen. She arranged her stuff in a neat pile by the door. One by one the high windows turned steadily grayer as though a filter were being drawn across the panes.

Trinity watched her brother watching Gwen's jeans.

"Our last ride let us off at some tiny white church outside Albert," Beale explained. "When we peeked in the window I was so excited I thought the pews were molded flight seats. Then this kid with a kite sent us walking down this road, said it wasn't far, said this'd take us right on out to where the saucer people live."

"No offense," said Gwen.

"Should I get you a blanket?" Trinity asked her brother. He had made no attempt to move. Maybe he would never move. If he passed out, no one would know it. Feet would have to step over him going to and from the kitchen, spilling nachos and cheese puffs on his chest. The crotch-eye view.

All the windows flashed silver, and there was the cracking sound a wedge makes driving into huge dry solids.

"Oh." Gwen's shoulders jumped.

"It's right over us," cried Edsel, thrusting into view and out again like a revolving mechanical figure on an old village clock.

Beale, apparently, had heard and seen nothing but the massive shape of The Object he was moving toward in a trancelike glide. His fingers reached out reverentially to caress the tarnished surface. A standard gesture. The zealous visitor from Akron had fallen on corduroyed knees to kiss the flaking underside. The men swooned, the women watched. Hardware ecstasies. Gwen kept glancing back at the railing. "That kid," she asked. "What's he doing up there?"

"Tracking tornadoes," replied Dallas. He climbed to his feet, brushed his palms on the back of his pants. "Anyone want a beer?"

But Beale had spied the chunks of tektite scattered along a peeling windowsill and in a rush of enthusiasm seized Gwen's hand and hurried over to hold each piece to the dimming light as if searching for perfect facets. "Incredible," he proclaimed. "Actual fragments of Marduk."

Pop! came a sound from behind the partition.

"Hey, Maryse," called Trinity.

"What?" answered a voice from inside The Object.

"Oh," said Beale, turning. "Another one. That's great."

"Wanna join the tour out here?"

"In a minute, maybe, I'm nursing." She sat inside at the pilot's seat, listening to every word. When the baby sucked it went right through her, little lips and tongue lapping away at all the secret places.

Dallas shuffled back into the room, printing out a trail of footsteps in sticky spaghetti sauce. He plunked down at a table against the rear wall and started riffling through a greasy pack of cards. Gwen's legs were poised in a crouch before the faded map of Sharpsburg, Maryland, tacked to the opposite wall amid a riot of newspaper clippings, magazine pages, Crayola renditions of Hollywood spaceships and carrot-shaped monsters, and dozens of amateur photographs depicting the miracle of flight. Blue veins crawled over the backs of Dallas's hands. On television everyone ran around in gauze masks.

"These pictures," declared Beale. "Some of them are the actual originals."

"From the actual actuality," explained Trinity.

The wind began turning the door on its hinges, then abruptly hurled it shut. "Let's get these windows closed," said Trinity. Dallas looked at his sister and belched. "Get the herbert to do it." Methodically he laid out a game of solitaire.

Gwen ran her fingers through her unwashed hair, and it stood up just like Dallas's after he had fussed with it for about an hour. "Is there a john?"

"In back." Trinity pointed to a wooden door. She watched her brother watching Gwen walk.

"I guess Dash and Dot aren't here at the moment," said Beale, tilting his head toward the walled-off altar end of the room.

"No," said Trinity.

"They out speaking or something?" thoughtfully stroking the clump of black moss hanging off the end of his chin.


"Well, do you by any chance happen to know—"


"Tomorrow," he repeated, bony fingers busily stroking.

Dallas rapped the side of the deck sharply against the edge of the table.

"Well, we'd sure like to meet them if you wouldn't mind."

"Thought you already did," said Dallas, engrossed in the lengthening columns of alternating black and red.

"No, no, we were just in the audience, in Yellow Springs, big audience, just listening."

In the john, which was a cramped stall with an elevated water tank and a stained toilet bolted to a wooden platform, Gwen splashed some funny-tasting water on her face and looked into her eyes in the speckled mirror, her eyes, the ones she looked out of, and then it was too late, the questions started their routine, and, hands riveted to the electrified sink, she went into the black holes: who is this guy? where are we? why are we here? who's that boy? when will he try to rape me? how do I get out? why did I come? who am I when I say who? She finally managed to pull herself off the mirror, the part that goes before you and clings to things, peeled it off the glass and slumped on the stool, studying some hands, and feeling for several long minutes presences other than her own using her eyes.

"You can throw your sleeping bags on the floor," said Trinity.

"Long as it's no imposition." Beale pulled his beard into a stiff point. "Gwen'll be thrilled. We've followed your parents all over the country, Buffalo, Albuquerque, Fort Smith, like a couple of groupies actually, but of course they're more important than any rock star, as I'm sure their own daughter knows, look here." He knelt down, unfastened the straps, and lifted the flap on a backpack stuffed, jammed, bursting with paper. "I've read all their work. Everything still extant, that is." He began filling his long arms—inches longer than the frayed sleeves of his unseasonably warm shirt—with books, magazines, pamphlets, newsletters, handbills, her parents having appropriated every print medium except cocktail napkins and matchbook covers. "The load gets heavy now and then, but sometimes words are more important than food."

In celebration of the thirst for knowledge, Dallas wandered back out to the kitchen. Pop!

"I don't believe I've ever seen this one," said Trinity, reaching for an off-center two-tone cover proclaiming News From Etheria.

"I've read it three times," offered Beale enthusiastically. "Everything's invisible and going on in perfect freedom right among us and the sky is all the time filled with these gigantic creatures shaped like amoebas that are floating around propelled by this weird energy and beaming down instructions."

"Yeah, we've seen 'em," interrupted Dallas, coming through the door, the open can held brazenly in his fist.

"You have?"

"More than once. First time Dad tried to communicate with them, second time he started taking shots."

"Wasn't that the other way around?" said Trinity. This book was a mess.

"No, the mirrors were in Circleville."

"The tubes and pipes up on that little hill?" The printing job was typical; lines of fat overinked blotches thinned into readable words that usually managed to keep their shape for a couple paragraphs before wasting away into pale, barely visible suggestions of legibility. A column of jagged type slanting left leaned up against a column slanting right.

"Benton, right. That was later."

"Who cares? I was gone a lot then." Published just two years previously, the volume was not aging well; light had already established around the edges of each page that ugly brown border that crept irredeemably—the clock was always ticking—toward the shrinking white nebula at the center of every cheap book. Everywhere the fire Father raved about.

Gwen emerged from the john, the pink of her scrubbed face now matching her eyes.

"It's cool," Beale assured her. "We can stay until Dash and Dot get back."

"This felt like a good place," Gwen declared.

"We were talking about Etheria. They've actually seen The Occupants."

"A glimpse," admitted Trinity.

"I rode in one," said Gwen calmly, as if announcing the time of day.

In between the sheets of static rested the woman from the beginning of the show with tubes up her nose and after she said something to the man a smiling nurse came in and gave her an injection on the television set.

"It's covering the whole screen!" shouted Edsel in a breathless soprano.

The windows had darkened dramatically. Clouds boiled behind the glass like chemicals in solution. Cool air poured in around the warped frames. The tasseled corn dipped and tossed. Outside everything was streaming, and as they watched, it was as though they were moving, too, passengers at the rail, slipping away from the last solid pier. Then lightning broke the flow into pieces, and all their faces went dead, featureless moons of calcified white, silenced in a moment echoing with thunder, beaded with fear.

"Imagine us," said Beale brightly, "lost out there in that."

"Wet," commented Trinity, and led their visitors away from these exposed windows back into the kitchen and the dinner to be mopped up and the dinner to be prepared.

Dallas stayed behind, watching the gray hull of the storm pass majestically overhead, waiting for the spiral hoses to come dangling down and vacuum up specimens off the planet floor. But swiftly the sky smoothed its threatening ridges and suspicious bumps into a low flat innocuous ceiling, and he turned away, agile fins sneaking soundlessly across the empty room, to the musty bundle of Beale's pack, stealthy fingers at the insides: the collected heap of Dash and Dot, a dark green T-shirt wadded about a cracked transistor radio, a crushed blue baseball cap missing its insignia, several aluminum packets of freeze-dried hiking snacks, a small vial of either perfume or vanilla extract, another plaid shirt, a pair of weathered bib overalls, and then a quick look over his shoulder and in plunged the arm up past the elbow into this cozy private darkness and a ball of roughness probably wool, probably socks; elastic bands of…underwear no doubt; the pliant coil of a leather belt; a round metal can of shoe polish? of chewing tobacco? something in cellophane; something long and plastic; something, something…up sprang his arm into astonished air, the trembling hand attached—custom-fitted, actually—to the trite reality, the phallic heft, the lethal delight of a chrome-plated Saturday Night Special.

When the hail hit the roof it was like a chattering of insects.



    "Beautiful and terrifying. . . . M31 offers a big, bold look at the American family. It takes us far away and very close to home. . . . Stephen Wright is a . . . bright star in the literary sky." --San Francisco Chronicle

    "M31 is a devastatingly forceful accomplishment and reestablishes its author as a star of the first magnitude." --The Washington Post Book World

    "Mr. Wright's sentences buzz like high-tension wires. I enjoyed reading every word of M31, literally." --Russell Banks

    Meditations in Green (1983)

    "Precisely that brutal hallucination we desperately wanted to end." --Don DeLillo

    "The best that any fiction about this war has offered." --Newsweek

    Going Native (1994)

    "An astonishing novel." --Toni Morrison

    The Amalgamation Polka (2007)

    "An extravagantly talented novelist. . . . For Wright, America, past and present, is Wonderland, a place of marvels and horrors from which not even the fortunate escape with their heads. " --Laura Miller, The New York Times Book Review

    "This dark and lyrical tale of madness and prophecy speaks uncannily from within its period, in the tradition of heartbroken humor, which America's lapses of faith in its own promise have always evoked in the finest of our storytellers, among whom Stephen Wright here honorably takes his place." --Thomas Pynchon

    "Quite simply an astonishing novel, brilliantly executed and beautifully written. Stephen Wright deserves to be famous and feted for it."
    --The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
  • Praise for Processed Cheese

    "Processed Cheese does for consumerism what Catch-22 did for war."—Stephen King, bestselling author of IT and The Shining
  • "In novel after unsparing novel-each one gorgeous, too, and full of awe- Stephen Wright has emerged as a kind of modern-day Socrates hectoring a complacent citizenry to have a good hard look at its collective delusions. With Processed Cheese, he's written a novel so outrageous and diagnostic of our current ills, it will prove much stronger than hemlock. If you hope to keep up your venality, America, your cruelties, and your death wish, better string this court jester up by his toes."—Joshua Ferris, author of The Dinner Party

On Sale
Jan 7, 2020
Page Count
256 pages
Back Bay Books

Stephen Wright

About the Author

Stephen Wright is a Vietnam veteran, MFA graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and the author of four previous novels. He has received a Whiting Award in Fiction, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a Lannan Literary Fellowship, and has taught writing and literature at Iowa, Princeton, Brown, and The New School. He was born in Warren, Pennsylvania, and lives in New York City.

Learn more about this author