Written by Katie Condo
Mislaid is, quite possibly, one of the oddest things I’ve ever read. Throughout Nell Zink’s breakthrough novel readers are asked to explore two very different worlds, with two central characters who at first glance appear to be exactly what they seem to be, at least as far as their sexual orientation is concerned. We learn that Lee is a gay man and Peggy a lesbian woman. We see small glimpses of their roots, how they became who they are; the author describes Peggy’s first crush and Lee’s taste in men. I’m no prude, but the book often ventures a little further than I wanted as far as detailing their sex life goes.
Events takes a turn for the strange when Peggy becomes pregnant; she decides that she wants out of her marriage, and the solution is that she and her daughter will pose as black people. OK…stay with with me here. She changes their names: her own to Meg and her daughter’s to Karen, then moves them both into a predominantly black neighborhood.
Keep in mind that the book is set in Virginia, and before major integration of the public school system. Karen is one of the only two black people in the school – ironic considering she’s actually white. These events are told from the perspective of Meg (formerly Peggy), who seems to think it’s perfectly fine to brainwash her daughter into believing she’s a totally different race.
As odd as it might sound, this setup actually reminded me of Danzy Senna’s Caucasia. For those who don’t know, Caucasia centers around two sisters who’s parents are in an interracial marriage; white mother, black father. One of the girls is very light skinned and able to pass as white and the other is very dark skinned and can only pass as black. Long story short, the mother gets in trouble with the feds and the sisters are split up, with the dark skinned one goes with her dad and the light skinned girl with the mom. Eventually, the light skinned girl is forced to pass as a Jewish girl in an all-white school. The parallels continue from there.
When I first read the description for Mislaid I assumed it was going to be a page-turner just because of all the intrigue involved. White people having to pass as black people, gay people pretending to be straight people…the possibilities seemed too delicious to ignore. It’s a shame the actual content doesn’t deliver quite the same kick, as the intriguing plot is largely told through narration. An ever-present narrator allows us to jump back and forth between the minds of the characters in a way that enhances the barebones plot. We know how Meg and Karen feel at various stages in their lives and the same goes to the flip side of the coin with Byrdie and Lee, the son and husband.
While there are definitely some highly charged scenes there are moments where it’s hard to judge whether the author is particularly vested in these characters. As parents Meg and Lee are completely detached throughout, separate from their children both emotionally and physically, and in very bizarre ways. Selfishness runs rampant and it’s difficult to sympathize with either of them. Their children, however, are a different story, as Zink describes their instinctual bond as siblings realistically. There’s a moment near the end in which Byrdie is drawn to Karen for reasons he doesn’t quite understand, probably because he doesn’t know she’s actually his sister. His emotional reaction to her was quite touching.
Overall, the writing in Mislaid was fair to middling; Nell Zink is no Shakespeare but curious readers shouldn’t scoff. To be honest, what made this a tougher read than expected was the narrator, a constant analytical voice that was continually passing judgement about this fictional world and its strange cast of characters. This was jarring, to say the least. This attitude, along with a dry read, didn’t make me want to revisit the book anytime soon. Once was more than enough.