The year is 1966 and Mislaid hurtles headfirst into the story of Peggy Vaillaincourt. Set in the South of America, Peggy is a young white girl with ambitions to be a playwright, although she feels “she was intended to be a man”. Her mother refuses her desire to join the army and instead sends Peggy to Stillwater College which, as the narrator helpfully points out, “was a mecca for lesbians”.
Mislaid is funny and particularly in an Elizabethan-poking-fun-at-human-folly way. Within months of her arrival at Stillwater, Peggy falls into bed with local, blue-blooded poet Professor Lee Fleming – also gay – “But he was a Fleming and a top.” Hence the title of this comedy of errors. But Mislaid hardly pauses to reflect: by page 20 Peggy is pregnant and has been expelled from college. She marries Lee, moves into his bucolic college housing, soon finds herself pregnant with a second child and saddled with the life of a faculty wife.
Eventually the marriage sours and, deeply unhappy, Peggy resolves to leave Lee. Dramatically, she hurls her blonde toddler daughter into the car (leaving her son behind with his father) and they take to ground in an abandoned house in a neighbouring town. So as to remain hidden, Peggy, now Meg Brown, adopts African-American identities for herself and her daughter. Nell Zink is forever flipping preconceived ideas of identity and societal categorisation, and yet the question remains as to whether this convoluted beat-up leaves us with anything other than knowing smirks.
Mislaid is in essence a Shakespearean comedy – the farcical plot set-up, the race/gender/class masquerade ball, the collision course of coincidences propelling towards reuniting the men with the women, and not least the omniscient narrator who deftly describes the entire charade.
Yet Zink’s narrator is dry – so deadpan sharp as to be almost snarky. And the tone wears thin. The anonymous voice floats above the story, acting as a barrier to any intimacy that could accidentally slip through the cracks.
In a recent New Yorker profile, Zink delivered a biting retort to her interviewer: “Don’t be so pathetically American.” Whether or not one believes an author cannot be separated from their work, “pathetically American” could be the novel’s subtitle. Zink’s narrator creates no empathy for Mislaid’s eccentric cast and it feels as though the author is brimming with distaste for them all. BT
4th Estate, 256pp, $27.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jun 20, 2015 as "Nell Zink, Mislaid". Subscribe here.