Passing in an Irrational World

Mislaid

by Nell Zink

Could Nell Zink’s Mislaid have appeared at a more serendipitous time, at least serendipitous for Zink, just when the Rachel Dolezal broke in June of last year. Hard to imagine in light of the controversy she stirred up and the thorough going over media talking heads gave her for passing for black. Racial inequality, personal and sexual identity, and familial conflict (the last two yet more dimensions of Dolezal’s story) highlight the biggies Zink skewers in her extravagantly sardonic novel.

The publishing industry likes to categorize their products. Quirky is such a classification, which Zink fills to the letter. That is to say not everyone will enjoy Mislaid. Link’s style tends toward jagged, and thus jarring, often wandering into the oblique. Her characters can feel more like caricatures. And her ending may strike a few as Candide finally finding his garden hoe. Others who like their reading different, relevant, counterculture, and peppered liberally with literary allusions, well, here’s a novel for you.

Peg attends Stillwater College, VA, built near a swampy thing called a lake, populated by an abundance of lesbians, which proves perfect for her, as she is a lesbian. However, almost immediately, she falls under the spell of the most famous teacher at the school, poet Lee Fleming. While his renown may be modest, his ego isn’t. And while he is gay, Peggy appeals to him, probably due to her boyish figure. They marry. They have two children, a son, Byrd, and a daughter, Mireille. It’s a long marriage, ten years, but not a happy one. When Peg’s fear of Lee grows too great, she decides to flee. She takes Mireille with her. Instead of leaving Virginia for, say, New York, where she could pursue her playwright career, she decides it’s safer to go to ground not far from Stillwater. To do this, she becomes a black woman by saying she is (delusion sells easily) and secures the birth certificate of a deceased black girl two years older than her daughter for Mireille. They go by Meg and Karen. They lead a hardscrabble existence. Meg becomes involved in some shady business. Karen, though, grows up to be a smart and engaging young woman who secures a minority scholarship to the University of Virginia. She also picks up a black boyfriend, Temple, who follows her to UVA.

Meanwhile, Lee searches for Peg/Meg. Byrd grows up privileged, not easy to do as Lee’s of the aristocratic class but constantly broke. Byrd often finds himself at odds with his father, who acts like something of a lunatic. Finally, Byrd lands at the public ivy, UVA. Guess what happens? Farce commands.

What makes the novel something you may (or may not) enjoy is the telling. So a quote should help you decide. Here, Lee, who publishes a poetry magazine at the college, meets with his female editorial staff on the occasion of putting out an all-women edition. A discussion ensues about these women thinking of men as, to use Lee’s word, Caligulas. To which the editor he knows as the Moaist rejoins:

“Lee, if you’re alluding to your homosexuality, the notion that homosexuality is less patriarchal than heterosexuality has been conclusively disproven. Gay culture is based on male bonding, which reinforces patriarchal structures instead of undermining them, and it produces exaggerated forms of dominance, for example in the leather and B&D subcultures or in its celebration of pornography, prostitution, and promiscuity. I realize it’s not your field, but gay liberation is turning back the clock on a hundred years of feminism.”

So, if you are of the mind, jump on it. w/c

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