Nell Zink’s newest novel, Mislaid, has the official Jonathan Franzen seal of approval. The front cover blurb indicates that Franzen sees Zink as “A writer of extraordinary talent and range.” This is true, yet my dominant thought as I read the book was not “here is talent, here is range, here is writing at its best,” but rather, “this book is going to piss a lot of people off and I’m not sure whether it’s worth it.”
The novel opens with a description of Stillwater College, an all-girls school that is not a direct parody of either Wellesley or Sarah Lawrence. Yet, as is soon revealed, it is the typical picture of a women’s liberal arts college, full of bull-dykes and radical feminists and man-haters, which stereotypically amounted to the same thing in the 1960s and ’70s when the early sections of the book take place.
One of the main characters, Peggy Vaillaincourt, is everything her rich parents don’t want her to be. Within the first few pages of the novel, we find out that Peggy “was intended to be a man,” that “girlhood was a mistake,” and that she is a “thespian” (by which Zink means to convey a mishearing of lesbian). She is only happy many years later in life when she tells herself, in a moment of clarity, “You idiot… You’re a femme!” Only then does she find true love and happiness, when she wears pantyhose and makeup. I can already hear the roars of dismay from various factions of the feminist and LGBTQIA communities; as someone who considers herself a part of both, it is often hard to remember that the novel’s irreverence toward political correctness is (probably) purposeful. Whether it is satirical, however, is harder to decipher.
Whatever the intention, there is no doubt that Mislaid is full of social criticism from start to finish. On the very first page, Zink writes about Stillwater College: “There was no fishing because girls don’t fish.” The novel is rife with similarly dry statements (pretty much one per page) that reveal a deeply cynical core.
The story alternates between the ridiculous and the sinister. Lee Fleming, a famous poet who teaches at the college and runs its prestigious literary review, is gay. Peggy knows she’s a lesbian. Yet they fall madly in lust and spend weeks going at it like rabbits until Peggy gets pregnant and Lee makes an honest woman out of her, meaning she also has to quit college. A match made in hell, of course, yet they have a second child and Peggy plays housewife while Lee continues to teach. His commute to and from the college involves a canoe, because he’s an original hipster. He entertains famous poets at his cabin, sleeps with them, sleeps with other women, and generally considers himself to be living the good life. He is obnoxious, as depictions of poetic geniuses often are, and it’s no wonder Peggy decides to leave him.
Her son, however, refuses to go with her, so she flees with only her daughter. There is no divorce, because Peggy is afraid that Lee will have her committed (she drove his car into the lake as an act of protest one time) and Lee isn’t interested in filing papers since, as far as he’s concerned, Peggy “existed as a tax deduction. A deduction Lee would go on taking whether she lived with him or not. It was only fair. She was much more expensive after she left than before.” This last bit is only true because Lee, rather inexplicably, is determined to find her and drives around country in addition to hiring private detectives to find her. Maybe Lee’s determination to track down his wife and daughter is supposed to convey some fatherly instinct and a deep, abiding goodness in him. Maybe it’s just an excuse to stick in a line about the nature of woman as commodity.
Peggy outsmarts Lee. Her method of escape involves masquerading as an African-American woman and passing her daughter as black with the aid of a dead baby’s birth certificate. The mother and daughter transform from privileged, middle-class whites to poor African Americans, squatting in a house without running water or electricity. Peggy becomes Meg, her daughter becomes Karen. (Her original name was Mireille.)
As if there weren’t enough to be offended and disturbed by, this transformation—the very literal racial appropriation—is so ridiculous that it feels like a mere excuse for Zink to be inflammatory. Everyone believes Meg and Karen are African-American because Meg says so, even though they are very clearly of European Caucasian descent. (Karen is blonde.) This raises a whole host of questions: What is racial or ethnic identity in the first place? Is it merely a social construct? Is it a social construct that can be twisted on its head so that past crimes against humanity (slavery) can be used for gain? Once Karen grows up, she gets a scholarship through affirmative action quotas. Her boyfriend is the geekiest African American kid portrayed in literature in a long time. But Zink isn’t offering any answers to the big questions, just pleasantly subversive scenarios.
The novel’s climax and denouement become a screwball comedy that feels like a racy, drugged-out version of The Parent Trap with a smatter of campus-rape issues thrown in. I’m not going to spoil what actually happens, if only because it matters so very little. The ending is not satisfying, and it feels rushed.
At a mere 242 pages, Mislaid is a manifesto for every social issue being talked about in America today, including drug crimes and race, cops and race, sexuality, sexual assault, gender, and alternative families. This is a novel so much in the cultural-socio-economic-gender-politics zeitgeist that it is directed at readers just like me—graduates of liberal arts colleges with lots of opinions and a habit of getting into long-winded discussions with people who already agree with them. It’s a mirror to our social conscience, and as such it is effective. I found myself grinning and wincing at equal measure at the familiarity of some Zink’s sarcastic quips.
But the novel, though well-written enough, isn’t much more than shaggy-dog morality tale. The plot is convenient and occasionally amusing and sometimes gasp-out-loud politically incorrect in the way a Louis CK standup is. Being faced with one’s own righteously indignant opinions (which stem from the privilege of education) is important. But, to my taste at least, there should be more to a novel than sly finger-wagging. Zink tells us we’re all complicit in the issues, but reading her novel felt like being underneath a trampoline she was jumping up and down on. She seemed to be having lots of fun; all I got was a nose bent out of shape.
– Ilana Masad is a reader, writer and editor living in NYC. Predictably, she has two cats with literary names. She is a columnist for McSweeney’s, and her writing, both fiction and non-fiction, has appeared in such spaces as The Oxford Student, Tin House, Four Chambers Press, The Lit Pub, Bookish, One Throne Magazine and more. Find her at SlightlyIgnorant — either .com or .tumblr.com — and @ilanaslightly.