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Mommy Queerest

[whitespace] book cover A Countercultural Girlhood: A mother drags her young daughter to New Orleans and Burning Man in Jenny Offill's 'Last Things.'

SF writer's 'Last Things' follows a young girl and her mad mother

By Fiona Morgan

Perhaps part of the reason children so freely create imaginary worlds is that they lack the experience that tells them what is normal. For 7-year-old Grace Davitt, the narrator of Jenny Offill's debut novel, Last Things, her mother's mental deterioration seems to her an extended trip through a familiar landscape of black holes, mythic animals and unexplained natural phenomena--things that have always been part of her family's dinner-table conversation.

Offill's writing is both lyrical and understated. The confidence of Grace's narrative voice grabs the reader's attention from the first page, when she recounts the myths her mother, Anna, tells her about the origin of light and darkness--the story of a bat bringing a basket of darkness to God.

Offill wrote Last Things on a self-imposed deadline: She wanted to finish her first novel by the time she was 29. She studied creative writing at Stanford University, and her experience in San Francisco writing multimedia science trivia became part of her work on the book. Now 30, she is being compared to Mona Simpson and Marilynne Robinson, and no doubt will be hailed as one of the best debut novelists of the year.

Grace is the only child of two smart and oddball parents. While both are scientists in their own fashion, Grace's father is a rationalist and atheist who waves copies of "Know Your Constitution!" at those who mingle Christianity with teaching at Grace's small-town Vermont school. Anna, meanwhile, works with endangered birds and is fascinated with both the physics of creation and the African myths she whispers in her daughter's ear.

Surrounding this family is an extended cast of equally--and through Grace's eyes, similarly--brilliant and strange people. Her uncle plays "Mr. Science" on an educational TV show. Her boy-genius baby-sitter Edgar (who is smitten with wild, exotic Anna) cultivates various species of mold and oscillates between distributing copies of the Futurist Manifesto and taking a meditative vow of silence.

We first glimpse Anna's obsessive and unreliable tendencies when she describes the monster she saw in a nearby lake. She confides her affection for the monster, wrapped up with memories of an old lover, to her young daughter. Later, she takes her daughter swimming in the same lake at night.

Grace processes all of her experiences like a detective sorting through clues, writing down the decoder for Anna's invented language and other important details in her "detective's notebook." When Anna's behavior finally begins to spiral out of the realm of simple eccentricity, we witness her push her husband away, as she takes Grace on a strange adventure, stopping in New Orleans to research zombies and then traveling across the country to the Burning Man festival, which Grace describes, with typically restrained wonder, as "a spot on the desert filled with lights and cars and strange machines ... a carnival without any rides."

Rather than narrate her emotional confusion, Offill illustrates Grace's feelings in the details of her actions (taking care to protect her mother from the emotional distress of seeing flies in the bathtub drain, for instance) and in the ways she makes sense of the random details that make up her landscape. She meditates on the concept of human extinction as she watches her parents' breakup; she draws connections between black holes and her mother's attraction to the monster in the lake. Offill has drawn a child character as complex as any adult, one without an ounce of cute.

Another appeal is the fact that, in the world Offill creates, all the questions children ask about how the world works are thoroughly indulged. Woven through the novel are episodes of Mr. Science, in which a cute young girl Grace's age presents questions ranging from "What would happen if the sun went out?" to "Is it possible to travel to the future?" along with a pop-science explanation. Grace learns about the origin of the solar system and life on Earth from the "cosmic calendar" her mother creates, compressing that entire history into a calendar year. Yet the suspenseful tales of the Encyclopedia of the Unexplained make an equally strong impression on her.

For Grace as for Anna, there exists no line between evolutionary physics and the tales of hyena men who devour their wives in their sleep, of girls who transform into boys in the middle of a thunderstorm. Her father's insistence on a strict separation between the rational and the mysterious is foreign to both of them, further widening the divide within the family.

In a way, it's heartbreaking to accept that Anna is sick. She is so fascinating, her passion and behavior untamed by the role of motherhood. Anna grieves for extinct birds and is unabashed at driving naked down the neighborhood streets. Offill succeeds in making us accept Anna as a free spirit, the way her daughter does. We end up feeling the burden that goes unspoken throughout Grace's narration, that if she could just help her mother reach the place she keeps pursuing so wildly, the possibilities could be endless.

Offill leaves the reader entranced with Anna's myths and tales of romance and as helplessly curious as Grace is about how her mind works. Another compelling aspect of this family is the way Offill's depiction of it defies the tired stereotypes of suburbia and embraces the idiosyncratic as normal, through Grace's intake of the random messages of the time--a dog that goes into space, Koko the signing gorilla.

Grace's idea of normalcy is one that more and more people who grew up in this countercultural era can relate to. And the authority of Grace's narrative voice, the simple descriptions joined with the mysterious logic of a child's mind, the restrained style of Offill's writing, blend with dozens of strange stories about nature, science and human history that are fascinating on their own terms. But ultimately, it's Grace and Anna's story, the progression of Anna's madness and the family's loss, that makes this book so compelling to read, and so haunting.

Last Things by Jenny Offill; Farrar, Straus & Giroux; 272 pages; $23 cloth.

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From the May 24, 1999 issue of the Metropolitan.

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