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Thursday, December 29, 2016

Mislaid

Mislaid, by Nell Zink, is a shaggy-dog story that touches on racial identity, sexuality, and class distinctions, but it never lands on them long enough to make enough of a statement. I found the book scattered and meandering.

It all starts with Peggy Vaillancourt, who growing up realizing she's a lesbian: "Realizing that her girlhood was a mistake didn’t change her life immediately. She could still ride, play tennis, go camping with the scouts, fish for crappie, and shoot turtles with a BB gun. Around age fourteen, it got more complicated."

In the 1960s, Peg attends Stillwater College, a kind of backwater. I never truly got a fix on what school this is supposed to represent, if any. I know it's in Southeastern Virginia--Old Dominion? The college is described as: "The work you had to do consisted of things like ponder Edna St. Vincent Millay. If you screwed it up, they didn’t criticize you. They invited you to their offices, offered you sherry, and asked you what was wrong."

One of the professors is a well-known poet (well, well-known for a poet) Lee Fleming, who has created a literary review that attracts other poets. He is homosexual, but for some reason he and Peg enter into a rhapsodic affair. Whenever I see films or read books about homosexuals having sexual attraction to the opposite gender I wonder how this plays to actual homosexuals. I found this in the film The Kids Are Alright, and I see it here. Somehow, it seems to me, that it makes homosexuality a choice that can be abandoned at will. At no time are the participants this affair labeled bisexual.

Anyway, they get married and have two children. Eventually she runs away and takes the younger child, a daughter (but not before driving his car into a lake). The son, nicknamed Byrdie, grows up with his father in a life of wealth and privilege, while Peg and her daughter live in squalor. She buys a birth certificate of a dead child and rechristens herself as Meg and her daughter as Karen Brown. Even though they are blond and blue-eyed, they pass as black.

The story ends up at the University of Virginia, where both Byrdie and Karen attend, and we know we are headed toward a Shakespearean reconciliation. There are more comments about college life, especially fraternities. "Parties at The University were considered a chance to blow off steam. To be three sheets to the wind and not show it: That was the ideal, attainable only by the most accomplished teen alcoholics. Visibly drunk: undesirable. Sober: geekdom (undesirable)."

Also in the cast of characters is Temple Moody, an actual black man who is Karen's boyfriend and fellow Cavalier. He is something of a genius, and when he actually gets to college he struggles. I found this to be interesting, as I also knew of very smart kids from high school who went off to good schools and couldn't keep up with a tough schedule.

Over all, Mislaid doesn't really have anything interesting to say and its drollery becomes tedious. I didn't find the characters interesting because they seemed to make choices that were arbitrary. Can't recommend this one.

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