Sunday, January 3, 2016

Mislaid by Nell Zink

An entertaining lampoon of American culture: Nell Zink's Mislaid is wild and wonderful and I didn't expect to love it as much as I did.

Meg, a mostly-lesbian white student, gets pregnant sleeping with Lee, a mostly-gay white professor. It's the 1960s. They marry. She eventually escapes their unhealthy relationship, taking with her their youngest of two children. To avoid getting drawn back into his web, she and her daughter Karen live in a swamp, where they pass as African Americans, despite Karen's blond hair and blue eyes.

"Meg's financial situation was delicate. Her expenses were low. She had a thousand dollars of capital left in her emergency fund. If something worse than that came up, she'd cross that bridge when she got to it. She had no rent, no utility bills, and a daughter who could survive on a noodle a day. Karen ate dutifully, not with feeling. But sooner or later she was going to get her growth spurt and start liking food. And there was the little matter of clothing. The county had a thrift shop. Like thrift shops everywhere, it specialized in the leavings of the elderly dead. People always had acquaintances who needed children's things and seldom donated them. Well-off children wore late-model hand-me-downs, but to get in on the action, Meg would have had to join a church. And although she was prepared to accept that the world was adopting stodginess as a fashion trend--that girls were putting away their mules and feather earrings and donning prim sweater sets like Lee's mother--she could not face praising Jesus in song to put Karen in Pendleton kilts. You have to respect your boundaries."

There's also Flea, a character who ditched school when she was in Grade 6 in order to move in with an adult man.

"Flea took up gardening, hoping to add vegetables to their diet. She didn't get very far. On her knees in the sand, she planted radishes she thought would sprout in three days and be ready to eat in two weeks. A typical country girl, raised between the TV and the car. Agriculture to her was clouds of pesticide raining down on corn. She knew traditional uses for many wild plants--as toys. Which seeds would fly farthest, how to best step on puffballs, how to make a daisy chain."

There's also a society for the protection of squirrels.

The whole thing is wacky and vaguely surreal, yet the characters got under my skin. It's like Zink shook views on race, poverty, class, gender and sexuality out of a box, then reconfigured the pieces into something sharply beautiful. And funny.

Readalike author: Miriam Toews.

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