Day Two of my three-day quote challenge (explanation here) comes from the novel I just finished.
Nell Zink’s Mislaid was a mostly serendipitous library find. I had heard some buzz about her previous novel, The Wallcreeper. I’d read the New York Times review of this one. I was kind of curious, but not at all sure that a “daring, envelope-pushing, and utterly hilarious” satire that, so the book jacket says, “upends the foundational categories of American life–race, class, gender and sexuality” was for me. And it sure sounded like it could go spectacularly wrong. But when I spotted it on the library shelf, I thought a book that isn’t my usual thing might be just right for busting a reading slump.
The zany plot isn’t easy to summarize, but basically: lesbian Peggy falls for her gay poetry professor Lee, ends up pregnant and married to him, and when the marriage (obviously a mistake) falls apart, runs off with her daughter, leaving her son behind. Peggy and Mireille hide out by living in poverty as Meg and Karen Brown–who, unlike them, are black. Lee and son Byrdie remain white Southern gentlemen living in much more genteel poverty.
Here’s the quote I chose, just part of a sentence:
in the years of the “Great Migration,” when black people came out en masse as cold-loving proletarians
This line–smart, funny, and more than a little discomfiting–is not a bad sample of Zink’s way of proceeding in Mislaid. I laughed, but a joke (from a white author who has lived in Europe for the past couple of decades, no less) about the Great Migration is kind of shocking. I listened to and loved Isabel Wilkerson’s Warmth of Other Suns; I know what caused African Americans to migrate North wasn’t their love of cold weather.
I’m pretty sure Zink knows it too. She knows about migratory birds (as this great New Yorker profile by Kathryn Shulz explains, a shared interest in birds how she began corresponding with Jonathan Franzen, who blurbs Mislaid). And the wrongness of her joke about “coming out” points at how the term “great migration” is a polite fiction naturalizing something with social causes, foremost among them the racism of the Jim Crow South. The quote has a larger context that I unfairly neglected: the sentence in which it is an aside talks about how the US government seized land in Virginia where “black people once hunted, fished, and farmed” for “vast and beautiful army, navy, air force, and CIA bases.” And this appears in a section of the novel about how Meg and Karen and their black neighbors are kicked off the land where some of them have lived since Reconstruction and moved to a housing project to make room for white, middle-class suburban development. The troubling joke highlights a whole racist history.
There were other memorable moments I found as sharply observed, such as the scene where Lee and a friend, a pair of middle-aged gay men, dine at a yacht club, where they notice a younger, more flamboyantly dressed pair of men (this is the 80s; think Miami Vice) and pride themselves on helping to make these kids’ openness possible. But then a couple of women in “little black dresses” show up, and they realize the kids are straight. Moreover, Lee and his friend Cary are wearing a uniform: white button-downs and distressed jeans carefully created according to instructions in The Joy of Gay Sex:
[T]he misfits who had shown America the way to flamboyant self-promotion–originally a way of finding comfort in one another’s brashness as they cowered in basements, fearing for their lives–sat nipping Scotch in identical shirts and 501s, drilled to conformity and finding scant comfort in other people’s flouting it.
Here I found myself thinking of those who ask what’s lost when marriage equality (which can be seen as access to a constricting heteronormative institution) becomes the goal. Is that liberation?
Lately I’ve been frustrated by the ways that the Bookternet’s talk about Zink’s themes (race, class, gender and sexual identity) circle around and around the same questions of diversity and authenticity–of representation. These aren’t Zink’s questions. Her over-the-top, satirical plot doesn’t aim at realistic representation. She approaches questions of identity slantwise, maybe symbolically. In doing so, she pokes some pieties with a sharp stick, in ways often usefully provocative.
But in the end, despite a lot of great moments, Mislaid left me dissatisfied. That’s partly my preference for realism and psychological nuance. Satire only works for me in small doses. But I think it’s also because of something Walter Kirn notes in his NY Times review:
the book has already answered, in a hundred ways, the question of what exactly is in a name: Nothing. Names mean nothing. They are labels stamped on mysteries, absurdly reductive and misleading. The same goes for racial and gender designations, which, in the book, are infallibly irrelevant to the highly individual business of living and loving according to our instincts rather than larger, social expectations. In “Mislaid” everyone is a minority — of one.
Which is true in a way, of course, but also not–because absurdly reductive labels do get stamped on people, often at great cost to them. When people think a little blonde girl is black because her birth certificate says so, labels matter. Zink knows this (as the passages I quoted show) but Kirn is right that the thrust of her plot suggests it doesn’t really matter. The view from Europe freed her to ask questions many Americans don’t want to, but maybe she’s also forgotten some things about her home country.
I think Schulz gets it right in the assessment of Mislaid at the end of her article:
Comedies are tragedies plus time, the saying goes, but they can also be tragedies minus consequences. The characters in “Mislaid” hurt each other and tell epic lies and commit crimes, but no one ever seems fazed, and everyone gets away with it. That is a kind of realism—in life, too, perpetrators go unpunished all the time—and Zink often excels at exploring such truths through comedy. But the ratio of buoyancy to ballast ultimately goes awry in “Mislaid,” and I missed the moments in “The Wallcreeper,” few but sufficient, when the bill came due.
Of course, when the bill comes due for the kinds of wrongs depicted in Mislaid, it’s often the wronged who pay them, doubly victimized. Maybe the comic triumph of this ill-assorted family is worth celebrating. Still, the end left me feeling that Zink had committed herself so much to her zany comic plot that she’d lost hold of the sharp social observations that marked the earlier parts of the novel, and that I really valued.