Other Voices Bookshelf

Appears in Other Voices #46

The invented life of kitty duncan by Kat Meads, Chiasmus Press, 2006

Once again Kat Meads has written a smart, provocative book that leaves readers laughing out loud and marveling about her virtuoso imagination. Meads’ new novel, The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan, is a picaresque romp, a satire of Southern manners, a witty feminist manifesto and a moving story about family and friendship.

The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan is narrated by Mo, a young North Carolinian who is in equal parts inspired and appalled by the uninhibited Kitty Duncan. “…I met our heroine, pregnant at the time, eighteen years old, a new bride, who’d departed Mawatuck County to take up residence mid-state in a university town with her (first) husband, seventeen-year-old Dale.”

Mo, a straight-laced journalism student, becomes Kitty’s quasi-friend and frequent baby sitter. “…Kitty, without my permission and certainly without my approval, decided to call me Mo, a derivative of MOM, in honor of my various momish ways. The taunt infuriated me.”

Mo studies hard and lovingly tends her friend’s daughter, Caesar (a name Kitty considers empowering). Meanwhile, Kitty parties frequently, dangling a string of admiring male students. The wild bravado hides her maternal and marital panic. “She wanted Dale to look and act as if this baby business was a breeze, a walk in the park, and instead he looked terrified and shell-shocked.”

Meads’ deeply Southern novel launches a modern rebel who follows her own appetites and curiosities heedless of social appropriateness or welfare. Meads nimbly evokes locale through accounts of clothes and social conventions as well as in vivid descriptions of geography and climate. Here Kitty complains about her move from the coast to inland Clemmons University, “Very quickly she began to complain about the oppressive heaviness of the atmosphere—how the air just hung three and never moved; how suffocating, how smothering, those dense molecules felt…..used to the turbulent coastal weather: sudden thunder squalls, bursts of blinding sunshine, fierce wind, pelting rain, hail the size of sycamore balls.”

Mo looks after baby Caesar. Kitty continues to play around and eventually seduces Mo’s boyfriend. She moves from him to a wealthy lawyer. Then on to a psychiatric patient who sets their motel room on fire. While he is carted off, she hangs out with Hank, a recovering alcoholic barkeep. And so on.

Particularly strong are Kat Meads’ depictions of Kitty’s idiosyncratic affections for the women in her life. Although she exploits Mo, abandons Caesar and drives her mother to total exasperation, she clearly cares for each of them and they, in turn, reveal genuine fondness for our provocative protagonist.

The Invented Life of Kitty Duncan ignites one surprise after another, generating an operatic melodrama flamboyant enough to be the prequel to Desperate Housewives. This risky, oppositional portrait of the Improper Southern Woman boogies readers to the cliff’s edge and leaves us there, laughing and wondering.

—reviewed by Valerie Miner

The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno, Punk Planet Books, 2006

Fiction writers often avoid dealing with the depths of loss and grief in a fashion that would have the term tender, or heart-breaking, associated with their work. Many cringe at the very thought. The difficulty in being so ingenuous is that one has a thin tightrope to walk over, a rope that hovers taut over a pit considered to skirt intellectual consideration of an issue: the pit of sentimentality. Throughout his career, Joe Meno has possessed an adroit ability to walk this tightrope with ease, to write characters who are smart and honest without sinking to the level of heartstring manipulation. Meno’s latest novel, The Boy Detective Fails, gives Meno the perfect tableau to do exactly what he does best.

The novel begins with the Boy Detective—Billy Argo—in adolescence; he is, as the title pronounces, a child detective in the tradition of Encyclopedia Brown or The Hardy Boys, solving cases with his kid sister Caroline and their neighborhood friend, Fenton. The three are inseparable, bound not only by their devotion to solving mysteries, but also to the youthful innocence they eventually become trapped by. Time goes by and the trio grow physically older, yet fail to make developmental strides towards adulthood. Billy leaves for college to study criminal law. Back home, devastated by his absence and the bridge Billy gaps away from his youth in leaving for college, Caroline and Fenton each go their own route. His ends with a paralyzing obesity, hers with suicide

The loss of his sister stunts Billy’s full passage into adulthood and, after his own suicide attempt, sends him to St. Vitus hospital for the mentally ill. After a ten year regressive stay, Billy gets released as a child at age thirty, and is plunged into a world full of unsolved mysteries, namely that of his sister’s suicide, which Billy fails to see for what it is. Yet the mystery Billy becomes tangled in is not solving why Caroline killed herself, or whether or not it was indeed suicide. The mystery Billy seeks, unaware, is the heartbreaking mystery of adulthood, and why it must come.

As seen in the stories in Meno’s collection Bluebirds Used To Croon In The Choir, Meno utilizes his unique sense of reality—which has been dubbed “absurd” and even “magical realism” but is more a fantastical wonder—to create the milieu Billy inhabits. When released from St. Vitus, Billy encounters a world where criminal masterminds and arch-villains are abundant, where buildings and their inhabitants regularly disappear. Inherent in this rendering of a post-9/11 landscape where the enemy lives quietly among citizens like sleeper cells, and buildings vanish from the skyline, is the ambition Meno is clearly after. This novel’s purpose is not travel the beaten path of the “coming-of-age” genre. It achieves more than that by illuminating a strange yet authentic reality hinged on fear and uncertainty, prevalent to the core of any sentient American.

Yet the novel doesn’t go without imperfections. Where Meno falters is on the aforementioned tightrope that he walks—but his frank approach doesn’t err in being sentimental, rather in the treatment of the opaque issues he presents. In dealing with post 9/11 themes of evil, of loss and grief, Meno all too often confuses his tender approach to the wonder and innocence of youth with simplicity. These topics have innumerable shades and complexities yet are tackled as if they were binary: good and love on one side, evil and hate on the other.

Mixing sweetness with sorrow, Meno’s work echoes a passage from Byron’s Don Juan: “Of all tales ‘tis the saddest—and more sad/Because it makes us smile.” By creating fantasy from loss, confusion and frustration, Meno continues to define his writing outside of the boundaries of realism. Nonetheless, the writing remains authentic in it’s handling of the existential issues it presents.

—reviewed by Michael Moreci

This Is Not Chick Lit: Original Stories by America’s Best Women Writers edited by Elizabeth Merrick, Random House 2006

Elizabeth Merrick, founder of Demimonde Books, the press that published her first novel Girly, is known for her outspoken views on the continued “double-standards” of literary publishing. Merrick keeps track on her website of how many male authors are published in the New Yorker vs. female authors, and has argued that female writers are often expected to write cute, romantic, facile fiction—“chick lit”—in order to get published at all, much less attain a wide readership, whereas male writers are able to write more psychologically, intellectually and emotionally complex or daring work with the support of the publishing industry.

While many may feel that literary fiction in general has long been in peril in our country, and that therefore male and female writers alike are facing a tough time, Merrick’s points nonetheless strike a cord for many women writers who receive complaints from agents and editors about “unsympathetic characters,” “depressing endings” and the like, complaints it is hard to fathom male writers receiving with anywhere near equal frequency. Imagine Roth or Updike or McEwan—or even a new generation guy writer like Eggers—being told that their work was too depressing to be published, that their characters were not “nice” enough, or that there was not enough romantic intrigue to attract an audience (O.K., not a likely complaint for Roth or Updike, but still!) It is easy enough to see that, even in 2007, the fact that an anthology could even boast the title This Is Not Chick-Lit, and that everyone would know, immediately, what such a title implies, illustrates a problem and dichotomy in the publishing community. Imagine an anthology of all-male writers being called This Is Not Noir Lit or This Is Not War Lit or This Is Not a Thriller. The mere suggestion makes no sense. Because while we have our detective novels and our war novels and our Dan-Brown-esque beach reading, it has always been a given that these categories do not define or reduce fiction by men. To say “this is not” one of those categories would not immediately tell the reader what the anthology is…whereas This Is Not Chick Lit immediately lets the reader know that the anthology in question is “serious” fiction by women, implying that such a thing is necessarily rare enough to need to be compiled into one volume to trumpet its existence. Further, the subheading claiming that the anthology includes work by “America’s Best Women Writers” implies that all—or most, or even a sizeable portion of—great literary writers who happen to be female could be fit into one (fairly slim) book.

If one continues in that vein, much as I admire Merrick’s position, dedication and aims, part of me fears that such an anthology may be exemplifying the problem as well as attempting to remedy it.

Such conceptual reservations should not, however, prevent the reader from rushing to the nearest bookstore to buy this anthology—because This Is Not Chick Lit is a wonderful book, full of diverse and compelling fiction that is as entertaining as any “chick lit” while being far more intellectually engaging. Some standout stories include the always stellar Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s melancholy “The Thing Around Your Neck,” Curtis Sittenfeld’s fabulously unlikable narrator in “Volunteers Are Shining Stars,” and Mary Gordon’s quiet, voice-driven “The Epiphany Branch.” Also included are more irreverent, dark and sexy gems like Judy Budnitz’s “Joan, Jeanne, La Pucelle, Maid of Orleans,” and Lynne Tillman’s linguistically experimental “The Recipe.”

Merrick has done her best to cover her bases here, including work by writers of a variety of ilks: ethnicities, nations, sensibilities, prose styles. That said, with the exception of Judy Budnitz, this is a pretty tame anthology—not a criticism necessarily, but perhaps an important point when returning to the “America’s Best Women Writers” qualifier. Earlier anthologies—the controversial, NEA-debated “anti-fluff” anthologies titled Chick Lit and Chick Lit 2 (published by FC2, before “chick lit” bore its current, hideous meaning)—come to mind as being more radical and risk-taking than Merrick’s compilation aims to be. Such anthologies might also be said to have contained writing by some of America’s “best women writers”…those more marginalized by the publishing industry than writers like Francine Prose, Jennifer Egan, Curtis Sittenfeld and Mary Gordon, who certainly weren’t hurting for big advances, publicity budgets or an audience prior to this anthology’s release. Yes, they do deserve it…but so many of the writers in This Is Not Chick Lit are already famous and lauded (even those less-known generally have several books out) that this does not aim to be a “ground-breaking” work. It doesn’t introduce much new talent or challenge what the publishing industry defines as “good,” and some readers, wanting a bolder stance, may quarrel with that.

Yet I would argue that Merrick (or her Random House liaison, perhaps) has taken an appropriate course for introducing readers to some excellent “crowd-pleasers” of literary fiction by women. Give or take one or two stories, there is nothing here that might offend, confuse or shock—nothing that would send the average reader back into the chubby, comforting arms of Bridget Jones. This Is Not Chick Lit does indeed compile some (though by no means all or most) of the “best” women writers avid readers of literary fiction already know and love, and makes a great introduction to such work for readers getting their feet wet, who would like to discover what “serious” women writers are sure not to disappoint. As an anthology, it will make an excellent textbook in lit classes of many themes (from feminist to multi-cultural to simply “short fiction centered”) and Merrick has a great eye for not including lemons in the bunch.

Kudos to Random House for taking an interest in a worthy project like this. And since it only begins to scratch the surface, more, please!

—reviewed by Gina Frangello

Blue Water by A. Manette Ansay, William Morrow, 2006

A. Manette Ansay’s latest novel, Blue Water, examines a couple’s struggle to come to terms with the death of their six-year-old son. Meg and Rex are devastated when their son Evan is killed in a car crash caused by her high school best friend, Cindy Ann. The fact that Cindy Ann was inebriated, and that she and her three daughters survived unharmed, further upsets Meg.

In an effort to escape and start anew, Meg and Rex leave their small Wisconsin town and set sail off Maine on their boat, the Chelone. They hope to travel away from their grief, and towards acceptance of their loss. The author illustrates their emotional pain by employing thick fog, turbulent storms, and banged-up bodies. The peace they seek comes infrequently, in the form of a fluttering warbler, a dip in the cool ocean or a view of the planet-soaked skies.

Ansay’s prose is crisp and direct. Her descriptive passages illuminate the character’s turmoil. For example, after spinning into an abyss of emotional suffering Meg comments “I felt as if I were grasping at the color of water, the color of the wind or the sky. And this only made me angrier.”

When Meg leaves Wisconsin, it is to set sail on the ocean, survive the natural elements, and live through the difficulties of such an isolated life. Ansay shows how bravely Meg navigates her lonely new world at sea—with her husband but without her son. The author succeeds in this effort by utilizing blue water as a metaphor for Meg’s desired serenity. It is an effective technique.

After months at sea, Meg and Rex drop anchor in Bermuda. During blissful weeks there, they receive an invitation to the wedding of Meg’s brother and Cindy Ann’s sister. Although troubled at the prospect of attending, Meg feels the need to cross paths with Cindy Ann once again. This is her attempt to close “the dark gap between what might have been” and what was. It means revisiting the event that changed her life irrevocably nearly one year ago.

Water, in the form of lakes and seas, is a powerful image in Ansay’s novel. Meg and her husband sail on the Atlantic. Her brother’s wedding takes place on a boat on Lake Michigan. In the end, water symbolizes the internal cleansing that Meg experiences. Ansay beautifully conveys this aspect of Meg’s life journey—her pursuit of grace in order to forgive and to live.

—reviewed by Sarah Louise Klose