“Mislaid” by Nell Zink

Mislaid 9780062364777_3d492People often call books like this “irreverent.” Maybe, on account of the protagonist driving a car into a lake, it will get “slapstick,” too. Any time I try applying those words to Mislaid in a sentence, though, they feel inadequate. Insufficient. Empty. Can we invent new adjectives for Nell Zink, please?

I was an instant fan of her previous novel, The Wallcreeper, because it similarly defied explication. Both novels resemble something Oscar Wilde might’ve written had he lived to see the latter half of the twentieth century, but even that comparison sells Zink’s writing short. For starters, while Wilde often made the class system his target, Zink moves beyond it in Mislaid, pinning down every sort of privilege for dissection.

The plot begins with a gay male poetry professor and a young lesbian woman having an affair and ends with the pair somehow married with two children. Our protagonist leaves her son behind and hits the road with her toddler daughter. The duo assume new (African American) identities, squatting in a shack in the rural South. The siblings diverge in race, class, gender, and–because the father speaks more frankly about his sexuality–what one might call queerness. (Of course they eventually find one another later in life.) Zink thereby puts most facets of human privilege, difference, and experience on the table as topics to explore, pick apart, and mock. Power is on trial, and as Marjorie Pay Hinckley famously said, “You either have to laugh or cry. I prefer to laugh.” Clearly, Zink agrees. Profound emotions like regret, grief, and the feeling of powerlessness in the face of stark unfairness are fodder for her zingers, right alongside preening, pompous wealth and comedies of errors.

A common criticism of this novel, so far, has to do with the limited nature of these explorations and mockeries. Consider the title–it’s sly and punny, but brief. Similarly, many of the views of, and attacks on, privilege in this novel come via clever one-liners or thigh-slappers with little set-up and a one-two punch. Many of them lend themselves to witty aphorism. Should Mislaid delve deeper into issues like racial discrimination, homophobia, patriarchy, and classism? Or is exposing the entire structure of society as one big joke enough? Does it matter that Zink is a white, able-bodied, ostensibly straight woman? Does it matter that the characters enter what essentially become privilege wars, and that many of the snappiest punchlines come during these exchanges? Do white authors have a duty to write beyond their own experience when tackling race in their novels? Should an author play the straight man (so to speak) to her own comic foil in answer to every human emotion?

Each reader will arrive at different answers to these questions. I can’t guarantee that everyone will find them to their liking. I can, however, promise that if you have a funny bone in your body, if you enjoy absurdity, or if you’re interested in reading a book that approaches social justice issues in a way no other novel of our time does, you’ll smile at least once while reading Mislaid.

Mislaid by Nell Zink (ecco | 9780062364777 | May 19, 2015)

Betty Scott

Erstwhile bookseller Betty Scott lives in the Chicago area and has a serious cinema habit. When not reading or watching movies, she writes reviews, poetry, and fiction.