Monday, October 19, 2015

book review: Mislaid by Nell Zink

The backstory: Mislaid, Nell Zink's second novel, was on the 2015 National Book Award longlist. I previously enjoyed her first novel, The Wallcreeper.

The basics:  "Stillwater College in Virginia, 1966: Freshman Peggy, an ingĂ©nue with literary pretensions, falls under the spell of Lee, a blue-blooded poet and professor, and they begin an ill-advised affair that results in an unplanned pregnancy and marriage. The couple are mismatched from the start—she’s a lesbian, he’s gay—but it takes a decade of emotional erosion before Peggy runs off with their three-year-old daughter, leaving their nine-year-old son behind." (from the publisher)

My thoughts: That description sets up the novel well, but it's somewhat impossible to discuss the novel without giving away a bit more plot than I normally. But Mislaid is not a novel one reads for the plot. Once Peggy takes her daughter, they begin living under assumed identities. She dresses like a man, and she procures the birth certificate of a dead black girl slightly older than her daughter. She figures it's the perfect way to stay in hiding: no one will find them if they're black. This premise is wickedly clever and allows Zink to explore race and ask big questions. What does it mean to be black? For Karen, it becomes all she's ever known. Her conception of race is shaped by the way she's treated.

Obviously, these issues of race, gender, and sexuality are serious, and Zink manages to make this novel a black comedy:
“I’m blond,” Karen objected. “There’s no blond race,” the clerk corrected her. “But it don’t matter. All God’s children attend the very same school. We like to know who’s black so we can help them out with affirmative action and a free hot lunch.”
Except sometimes it isn't. As a novel and a concept, it's extraordinarily clever. At one point I referred to it as wickedly divine and thought it should be mandatory reading for everyone living in the United States. Yet as the novel wore on, it lost steam. Zink's writing continued to shine, but the characters, who always struck me as a means to tell this bold story rather than as authentic people, seemed to try to be real people. It was oddly unsatisfying and quite boring. How, I pondered, could a novel about this topic possibly be dull? As a vehicle for Zink to make points about race and sexuality, it succeeds, both humorously and seriously:
“It’s like people used to just get it on, but modern science started sorting us into categories. So you get assigned this identity, like ‘straight woman,’ meaning woman who likes men. Except ninety-nine guys out of a hundred, if they touched you, you’d scream."
Yet when it tries to be more, I found myself not wanting to be on the ride. None of the characters were real to me, and I didn't want them to be. I didn't care what happened to them. Instead, I cared how Zink used them to make me think and make me laugh at preposterous, but serious, things.

Favorite passage:  "To be perfect (adorably wee and blond) yet marked for failure (black and dressed in rags)—don’t we all know that feeling? The principal, who had voted for George Wallace for president, couldn’t watch her bounce away across the schoolyard without musing that a petite female with a white body and a black soul might in ten or twelve years’ time be a sort of dream come true, assuming she moved away to the city and pursued a career in show business, broadly defined."

The verdict: Mislaid is at times brilliant, both in story and writing. Unfortunately, at times it is also downright dull, which is problematic, both for such a slim book and for one that relies on dark comedy. It's certainly worth reading, as there is much to discuss and also to pick apart. This novel will stay with me. I'll continue to mention it in conversation. I'll continue to wrestle with its themes. And I'll continue to recommend it. I just wish it all were as strong as the first half. As Ron Charles so succinctly says in his review, "Her comic sense is stronger than her narrative sense, which makes the book as a whole less satisfying than the outtakes and drive-by cultural hits."

Rating: 4 out of 5
Length: 256 pages 
Publication date: May 19, 2015
Source: library

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1 comment:

  1. I haven't read that many reviews of Mislaid, so I'm glad to read yours. I really liked it and it made me wonder why i hadn't heard of Zink before. I also bet that it was going to be one of the big books of 2015. I may have been wrong there. But it was an enlightening read. I agree with you that it slowed down in places, but it's craziness still rocked it for me.


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