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Life in Peter Bognanni's 'House of Tomorrow'

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Peter Bognanni
Peter Bognanni says the two main characters in "The House of Tomorrow" not only bear a resemblence to people he knew growing up in Iowa, but also to himself.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

St Paul writer Peter Bognanni combines geodesic domes and punk rock in his new novel. "The House of Tomorrow" is an off-kilter coming of age story set in small town Iowa. 

Bognanni, grew up in Iowa, but now teaches at Macalester College.  He says the book came about from an offhand comment made to his wife at a party.

"She was talking to a guest there who said, pretty much apropos of nothing, 'Yeah, and I live in a geodesic dome with my grandmother.'" 

Bognanni was working on another novel at the time, which he now admits wasn't going so well. When he heard about the comment, it got him thinking: what kind of person might live in a geodesic dome, with his grandmother?

"So that was sort of where the character of Sebastian came from," he says. "I started doing all this research then about Buckminster Fuller, the inventor of the geodesic dome, and I thought maybe, what if they are living his principle to the fullest? And what if that's been Sebastian's life?" 

In the novel, 16 year old Sebastian does live, with his grandmother, in "The House of Tomorrow." It's a large glass dome outside the town of North Branch Iowa. She built it and now runs it as an educational facility trying to spread Fuller's theories about what he called 'Spaceship Earth. 

Sebastian, is homeschooled by his grandmother. He's smart but unworldly, speaking like a stilted intellectual. One day his grandmother has a stroke and ends up in the hospital. Sebastian is suddenly alone. By chance he meets Jared, who is also 16. Jared has a very different world view from Sebastian.

"He either hates you, or wants you to be in his band," says Bognanni. "Or maybe both, depending on day that you catch him."

Jared has his own major medical problems. He's had a heart transplant, but refuses to let that interfere with his teen rebellion. It is Jared who introduces Sebastian to punk rock. The music both confuses and excites Sebastian. 

Bognanni reads a passage from the book where Sebastian turns to the internet to do some research. 

I sat down at my computer and stared at the blinking cursor. I began to tap out a word with my pointing finger. The word was 'Sid.' I tapped another word, 'Vicious.' Sid Vicious, the bass player that Jared had mentioned. It took me very little time to find information and work out a brief biography. 

Mr. Vicious had played for a band called the Sex Pistols. He was an illegal substance abuser. He assaulted people and things. He may have stabbed his true love, and he died at the age of 21, just after being released from prison. I studied the black and white pictures that accompanied the articles. Sid was rail thin, like me, but he had tall bristly hair, and a dirty smudge of a moustache. His eyes were slivers and his thin brows arched over them fiendishly. Also he seemed to be wearing the same pants in every photo. He looked not dissimilar to a picture of a feral child I'd seen in one of Nana's books about scientific curiosities. I read on for the better part of an hour before I came across the first nugget of information that actually meant something to me. Sid Vicious did not know how to play the bass."

Which is important because Jared wants Sebastian to play bass in his band.

"He is going to learn, whether he wants to or not," laughs Bognanni.

Their resulting adventures lead them to confront issues of mortality, spirituality, love, lust, and the need for parents. That's not bad given the novel only spans about two weeks. Peter Bognanni will read from "The House of Tomorrow" tomorrow night at the Barnes and Noble in Edina at 7. He says there's a thrill in writing about teenagers.

"Because life is lived in such a heightened state at that time," he says. "And it feels to me like there are such highs of hope, and such highs of fear, and, oftentimes even in the same day, that it seems to me like it's almost the emotions of life completely condensed."  

Peter Bognanni says in writing "The House of Tomorrow," he was surprised by how the do-it-yourself ethic of punk rock maps so perfectly with Buckminster Fuller's philosophy. Fuller told his followers if the world needs something, just go out and invent it.