Nell Zink's characters represent and confront most of the "-isms" and phobias related to the “Other” that still plague not only the USA, but the entire world.
Length: 256 pages
Author: Nell Zink
Publication date: 2015-05
One of the most emblematic (and outdated) social constructions of the classic American Dream is the nuclear family. Commonly defined as a household consisting of a couple and their kid(s), the term is more or less packed with cultural connotations (such as heterosexuality, marriage, biological offspring, patriarchy, stay-at-home sexism and, to be honest, Caucasian privilege), resulting in a superficial image of domestic suburban perfection that rarely, if ever, actually exists. In other words, every family has its dysfunctions and/or deviations from this ideal; furthermore, the current generation is redefining the boundaries of what “family” means more than ever before, so the Leave it to Beaver model is now almost entirely unrealistic and archaic.
Taking this into consideration, it’s not surprising that popular culture has spawned countless satirical commentaries on the concept, ranging from films like Blue Velvet, The Chumscrubber, and American Beauty to shows like Family Guy, The Simpsons, and Malcolm in the Middle. Even modern video games have breached the subject with titles like Octodad: Dadliest Catch, Fallout 3, and of course, The Sims series.
Naturally, literature is also filled with observations on the notion, with books such as Less than Zero, Fight Club, and The Corrections offering intriguingly askew perspectives. In certain ways, Mislaid, the sophomore novel by Nell Zink (The Wallcreeper), earns its place alongside these examples, as its central premise, eccentric situations and humorous dialogue directly respond to the aforementioned textbook structure; however, its superfluous attention to detail, shallow story, inconsistent pace, and unlikeable characters prevent it from being as engaging, meaningful, and memorable as it should be.
The novel focuses on the Fleming family, from its unconventional romantic beginnings, through its absurd estrangement, and to its vibrant reconciliation. Specifically, and as the official description states:
In 1960s Virginia, college freshman and ingénue Peggy falls for professor and poet Lee, and what begins as an ill-advised affair results in an unplanned pregnancy and marriage ... Peggy eventually finds herself in crisis and runs away with their daughter [Mireille], leaving their son [Byrdie] behind [with Lee] ... Peggy and her daughter adopt African American identities and live in near poverty to escape detention. Meanwhile, Lee and his son carry on, enjoying all the social privileges their gender, class, and whiteness afford them. Eventually the long-lost siblings meet, setting off a series of misunderstandings that culminate in a darkly comedic finalé ...
To be fair, it’s easy to see how this plot serves as a way for Zink to “[expose] all of our assumptions about race and racism, sexuality and desire, through the making and unmaking of one American family.” After all, her characters represent and confront most of the -isms and phobias related to the “Other” that still plague not only the USA, but the entire world. Unfortunately, they don’t do it with much substance or impactful repercussions; rather, both the situations and traits that define these people feel artificial and ancillary instead of dense and crucial. Sure, the narrative is defined and progressed via these contrasts, but in the end they don’t really amount to much, so readers are left wondering what the point of it all was.
Take Peggy and Lee, for example. The former is a virile lesbian who treats her sexuality and interests like novelties; likewise, Lee is an affluent and arrogant gay man making waves in the worlds of academia and poetry. They come from opposite sides of the track, yet they’re drawn to each other because they challenge each other’s stubborn perspectives, indulge in each other’s taboo desires, and defy traditional gender norms.
With this setup, Zink had the opportunity to explore in-depth considerations of sexuality, love, masculinity, femininity, and communal (un)acceptance of certain consensual adult partnerships. Instead, their move from homosexual foundations to heterosexual experimentation serves no concrete purpose. They could’ve just as easily been two straight people who fell in love (or lust), procreated, and then separated. The fact that they’re both fundamentally gay is just an added factor for the sake of having a superficial layer of controversy and hipness.
Along the same lines, neither Peggy nor Lee is likeable. At all. Now, this isn’t to say that unlikeable characters are automatically bad characters. In fact, the best characters are complex and conflicted, blurring the lines between good and evil to varying degrees for varying purposes. In the case of Mislaid, though, both Lee and Peggy are just downright unsympathetic, egocentric, and irrational people who care little for each other or their children. For example, they cheat on each other almost instantly (especially Lee), yet neither really seems to care (as either the perpetrator or victim). Yes, infidelity leads to the family split, but both of them are too filled with histrionic displays of spite to demonstrate any emotional consequences. Even worse, neither seems to care about the effects these events will have on their children. One could argue that many real life divorces are similarly selfish, but when it comes to fiction such distaste for the characters equates to distance from the story as a whole.
Once the parting takes place and readers follow both sides of the family over the years, the momentum of the tale slows down considerably. Really, the majority of the middle portion of the novel is forgettable, as the emphasis is on unnecessarily lengthy details and interactions instead of integral plot points and connections. Lee and Byrdie continue onward as a spoiled father/son duo, with the former demonstrating more apathy towards his son and situation. Meanwhile, the reimagined lives of Peggy and Mireille (complete with new names and racial identities) go on quietly but contently.
As with the [lack of] exploration about sexualities, the change from being white to black is far too easy and inconsequential for the mother/daughter team. The means through which Peggy attains this second life is ridiculous, for one, and she convinces people of their new ethnicity far too easily. No one seems to question it or really even react to it (positively or negatively). Admittedly, the commentary on racism is a bit more substantive than the one on sexuality, but it’s still not enough to really have a bearing on anything.
Fortunately, Mislaid becomes much more interesting, multifaceted, and driven during its final act, when the siblings are reintroduced to each other at a crucial time in their young lives (which shouldn’t be spoiled). Here, Zink displays great skill in defining them and the people they’re with, as every player feels unique in how he or she acts, dresses, and speaks. The book also becomes very funny at this point, with a lot of the dialogue and conflicts coming off as wonderfully bizarre and quick. As the cliché goes, the final few chapters are truly page-turners, with an ending that is immensely enjoyable (despite its rushed convenience, which prevents a substantial amount of closure and costs that should’ve been a key component).
Mislaid is an inconsistent book in many ways. Its bookended chapters are far more appealing than its middle bulk, for one, and some of its most important characters, specificities, and occurrences have either a null or adverse impact on the reader. When it works, though, it works superbly, with a delightful sense of oddball humor and narrative developments that one can truly invest in. The book isn’t as gripping, consistent, or powerful as it sets out to be, but there's still some fun to be had. All in all, though, its scattered instances of greatness simply aren’t enough to warrant enduring the majority of dull and aggravating irregularity.