Three Day Quote Challenge: Mislaid

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 WallcreeperI’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.

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4 Responses to Three Day Quote Challenge: Mislaid

  1. KeiraSoleore says:

    You’ve done such a good job with this review by showing the parts that worked and those that didn’t work. I don’t think I could read a treatment of this type of story as a satire. The potential for it going awry–being accused to doing exactly the opposite of what it’s trying to do by poking fun at it–is high. And in cases where the two are close, I couldn’t be sure whether it’s the author’s latent racism coming to the fore or that the author’s mocking others’ racism.

    Labels are important. Pretending they do no harm or don’t matter is privilege talking. I’m surprised that when Peggy and Mireille become “black,” accusations of misappropriation–of the kind hurled at Rachel Dolezal–weren’t hurled at Zink.

    I’m curious why the two do this in the first place? What was it that they wanted to experience? Was this an experiment or a deeply-held belief?

    Similarly, people’s names are important. Just a few days ago, I was talking with author Piper Huguley about her post on why black people names are important to them and are not random. My comment was which parent is careless in the naming of their child? Every parent takes care over this. Names matter to the future of the child, how he or she feels about themselves and how others perceive them.

    I’m also curious does the book feel self-conscious in its choices of minorities? I.e., does it feel like it deliberately set out to make a story of minorities rather than a reflection of society at large? Does that work for the story?

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      These are such good questions! I thought about them all, and had a hard time not making this post 3 times as long.

      Peggy/Mireille become Meg/Karen (and thus black) by chance. Lee threatened to have Peggy committed and she thinks she needs to hide from him. When she visits her parents, she notices a child’s gravestone and she gets that child’s birth certificate for Mireille. Once the kid has a birth certificate identifying her as having “colored” parents, people start to read her and her mother differently.This isn’t a story about appropriation at all, I don’t think–they don’t try to “act black” and I’d say the novel is dubious about whether there is any (or any single) “authentic” blackness they could appropriate–that’s part of what I mean by saying this novel isn’t interested in questions of representation. It’s more interested in exposing race as a fiction (which it is, in the sense that it’s a social construct). The jokes it makes are not, I think about blackness or black people, but about that fictionality.

      At the same time, obviously those jokes can backfire, and will for some readers. For me they mostly didn’t, although people could say that’s because of my white privilege and maybe they’d be right. I certainly found myself asking “Can a white lady make (and laugh at) these jokes?” Because I felt the butt of them was racism/race as a construct, I decided yes. And it made me think about whether/how white authors (and others) *ought* to be saying risky things on these topics–since racism is our responsibility.

      I have no idea, of course, whether Nell Zink the person asked herself these kinds of questions, but the book reads as if Nell Zink the author did not, because they aren’t the ones she cares about–as I said, it’s not very interested in questions of representation and appropriation that preoccupy so much book discussion, and it’s fearless in its risk taking. Again, this will backfire for some readers. I appreciated it. I thought the book kicked right past a lot of pieties so it could explore other angles of identity. That’s not to say I don’t think questions of representation and appropriation matter; I do. But we can get really stuck on a narrow range of things that can be said/shown about race and identity in fiction. No book can take on all the angles, and some things, as I noted, get ignored or shortchanged here, and the real effects of labels is one of them. They may be fictional/social constructs, but people treat them as real so they have real effects. Downplaying that is a consequence of Zink’s choice of focus and approach, and it’s one I wasn’t entirely comfortable enjoying.

      I am definitely interested in reading her first novel now.

  2. Sunita says:

    What a great post! I read the New Yorker story about Zink and her connection with Franzen, and I was intrigued, but I shy away from race satire novels as a rule. But this sounds really interesting, even if it fails at the end. I wonder if part of the failure is that Zink wanted to keep a lighter, or at least less bitter tone, and that can end up shortchanging issues like race/racism. And on top of that, a focus on individuals, their choices, and the unintended consequences of those choices can overshadow the importance of structural and institutional conditions.

    I don’t know that the line about the Great Migration would have shocked me, but that may be because it’s been part of my understanding of US race history for so long. I haven’t read Wilkerson’s book, but the migration was spurred at least in part by the fact that the North could break its economic compact with the South. Blacks would have migrated much earlier had the northern industries been willing to hire them in greater numbers. But that aside, when does “too soon” stop being too soon? In satire, horrible and painful topics become fair game pretty fast.

    I do wonder about the importance of Zink’s residence outside the US and her utter disconnection from the US literary scene, that is, I wonder if she could have written such a book sitting on the east or west coast of the US, or in any number of university towns.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      What you said in the first part is pretty much my feeling about what she was up to. And maybe part of what felt both slightly shocking/discomfiting and original about this book is that those are choices writers aren’t really “allowed” to make (or at least not white ones). I agree with you about writing from outside the US being important, as well–and this book is not set “now,” but in the 60s-80s, which is presumably around the time Zink herself lived in Virginia, but also distances events a bit and makes her choice of mode/tone/focus safer, maybe. I can’t really imagine wanting to read a satirical novel about Ferguson.

      I think my feeling about the Great Migration joke was that because of Wilkerson’s book *I* feel sort of pious about it; she so successfully brought the people she wrote about to life for me that I have an emotional attachment to them and their lives, which made the joke feel like a poke with a stick. Which doesn’t mean I think it should be off limits, but that I suspect there will be similar moments for most readers of the book, though prompted by different things. Even though I feel a bit pious about my own time at a women’s college, I found the parts about Stillwater hilarious (maybe I just smugly feel that mine wasn’t “that kind”).

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