Mislaid by Nell Zink

Yinz guys remember Soul Man?  C. Thomas Howell gets a bad perm and some spray tan to take advantage of affirmative action admission policies at Harvard… ring any bells? Yeah, well this book is nothing like that.

soulman

In this book, a young lesbian has a fling with a gay male professor that results in an unexpected pregnancy and an ill fated marriage.  I really like this premise.  The marriage is, of course, a terrible flop, but times being what they are (the 60s) and their families and finances being what they are (complicated) divorce is not an option, so they stick it out for 10 years and even have another child.  Finally enough is enough and mom goes awol taking the younger child with her and lives as a black woman for the next 12 years.  wait… what? So, now my Soul Man reference is making a little more sense.

In Soul Man, a young, privileged white kid can’t beat out other young, privileged white kids for a slot at an ivy league school, so he pretends to be a person of color to qualify for a limited number of positions available to traditionally underrepresented students.  And in the end this douchebag gets the girl.  This was what passed for a comedy in 1986.   

Meg and her daughter don’t perpetrate this ruse to gain access to a world of privilege traditionally reserved for other people.  Instead, they live quite literally off the grid, impoverished and alone, in hiding from their former life.  They are able to pass for black not because of how they look, but in spite of it.  The author suggests that in rural Virginia in the 1960’s having even one non-white ancestor was enough to get you kicked out of the white club, so it was possible for a person who’s birth certificate said black to look white and that is how Meg and her daughter pass for over a decade.

If you identify as a lesbian and you marry a man, are you still you?  If you are white and you live as a black person, are you still you?  If people think you are black but you look white and identify as black but actually are white… what then? Race, gender, sexual orientation… who are you when you live a life you don’t identify with?

In a series of events reminiscent of a Shakespearean comedy the family is eventually reunited and it all wraps up just a little too neatly for my liking. The whole book is about how messy and difficult life is and then at the end… life is still messy and difficult, but everybody stops railing against it and even though there is a huge dramatic climax, it all somehow felt anticlimactic.  Only one of the characters (Meg) explores these questions of identity and for her I feel the story ends as it should.  Other characters find their peace a little too easily.

Zink’s writing is wild.  It is rambling, but not without structure and is often beautiful.  My only complaint is the frequent literary references.  I haven’t read Foucault or W.E.B. Du Bois or James Joyce and I don’t get references to their work.  That doesn’t mean that I can’t still enjoy the narrative and the characters, but when the references are laid on as thick as they are in this novel, they start to slow me down. I am reasonably well read.  If I can only understand one in ten of your references, one of us is doing something wrong.  Even with the abundance of literary references, Mislaid beats Soul Man any day of the week.  Thumbs up.

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