| art & architecture | books & cds | dance
| destinations | film | opera | television | theater | archives
Last Things is an ambitious novel that touches on
big themes - the poetry of science and physics; our millennial preoccupation with the end
of time; correlations between creativity and insanity; and the allure of mysticism and
pagan spirituality. All of this is funneled into a domestic drama about a crumbling
marriage and its impact on a grade-school child. Even a seasoned writer would be
challenged to combine these portentous ingredients into something workable - let alone
readable - so its no surprise that first-time novelist Jenny Offill is taxed here
beyond her freshman abilities.
is arresting, but because the novel is narrated by an eight year-old named Grace Davitt,
were treated to 264 pages of a cloying and repetitive sing-song voice that rather
quickly wears out its welcome:
My mother had a
birthday party for the Earth. It was 4.6 billion years old, so no candles, she said. She
made a cake and covered it with blue-and-green frosting. I ate the ocean and she ate the
land. Afterwards, we watched my uncle talk about kangaroos on TV. When was he coming to
visit, I asked. One of these days, my mother said.
There is clearly a narrative strategy at work here. By forcing us to
see the world through Graces eyes, Offill is attempting to bring us face-to-face
with the wide-eyed wonder and magic of childhood. And because Graces mother, Anna,
exhibits symptoms of mental illness, the novel derives much of its effectiveness from our
realization that Annas delusions are keyed to the same childlike innocence that
defines her daughter Graces world view.
Last Things is at
its best when Grace relates the bizarre mythological tales and pseudoscience factoids that
spring from Annas overheated imagination:
In Africa, my mother
said, there is a secret city where no one ever sleeps. If a traveler stumbles upon it and
falls asleep, he will be buried alive before he wakes. The villagers have never seen sleep
before and would think he had died in the night... Another time, my mother told me when I
was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form. I could have
spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late.
The novel unfortunately never brings Anna into focus as
a character. Shes a Vermont ornithologist with a passion for The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, an arcane compendium
of oddities like the Loch Ness monster and "Kamala, wolf girl of India." Anna is
the sort of free spirit who takes her daughter nude swimming in the local lake, then
neglects to put clothes back on and drives naked through town. She paints a room in the
house black and turns it into a planetarium where she gives Grace classroom lectures on
the Big Bang theory.
Anna is such a
flamboyant Auntie Mame-like presence that when Offill wants to suggest that the character
is psychotic later in the book, there is no resonance to such a disclosure. Offill never
bothers to negotiate a distinction between eccentricity and schizophrenia. Annas
behavior on page 200 is no less bizarre than her behavior on page one, although Offill is
at pains to show Anna "deteriorating" as the story progresses.
Anna and Grace
embark on a psychedelic road-trip for the final third of Last Things. A
stopover in a phantasmagoric New Orleans, and a visit to the New Age bohemia of the
Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert, seem weakly designed by Offill to reflect
Annas descent into madness. At the same time, these distorted and carnivalized
images of America unfold as intimations of an approaching apocalypse. Anna cryptically
announces to Grace that the planet is in the midst of its "third
extinction" which will soon wipe human beings off the face of the earth. Of course,
what is all too obvious by this point is that it is Anna herself who is headed toward
extinction. But Offill is simply out of her depth with this material. Annas final
days are the least satisfying aspects of the book. Piling on unearned allusions to the
suicide of Virginia Woolf - and all that her name symbolizes as a literary and feminist
icon - is probably Offills most offensive misstep.
is a novel that tries so desperately hard to be quirky and unconventional that it ends up
being just that: desperately quirky and desperately unconventional. Annas madness
fails to register within the scope of the story because Offill freights all of the
books characters with baffling behaviors and "colorful" dysfunctions.
Graces babysitter, Edgar, has an I.Q. of 160 and an obsessive-compulsive disorder.
"Sometimes," Grace tells us, "he washed his hands four or five times in one
night and he always brought his own soap with him." Graces Uncle Pete plays Mr.
Science on an educational kids TV program, until he inexplicably runs off with a
female scriptwriter. And Graces father, Jonathan, a pedantic rationalist who teaches
chemistry at a parochial school, suffers a nervous breakdown when hes fired from his
job (for questioning the schools stand on creationism). Out of work, Jonathan
hides for days in the basement of the house. He is rehabilitated when he dyes his hair
brown and replaces Uncle Pete on television as Mr. Science.
contrivances and outlandish personalities are so worked-up and overwritten that Last
Things at times resembles one of those "house full o nuts" screwball
comedies like Frank Capras You Cant Take It With You or Arsenic and
Old Lace. The old movie comedies, however, were always smart enough to present a
degree of baseline "normalcy" that the oddball characters were either responding
to or rebelling against. Last Things is too relentlessly postmodern to bother with
rationality or normalcy, so Annas insanity has no real-world coordinates or
perspective by which we can be emotionally moved.
Jenny Offill is
unquestionably a writer of promise, and Last Things has moments of dreamlike
enchantment that make for a distinctive debut. This is a novel marred by an overabundance
of clever ideas, a not uncommon dilemma faced by young writers with talent to burn but not
much - or too much - to say. Wall-to-wall whimsy is no substitute for narrative coherence.
When everyone and everything is out of the ordinary, theres nothing really at stake,
and nothing to engage us beyond a gawkers curiosity to turn the pages and marvel at
the freak show.
- Bob Wake