by Courtney Fulcher
I first saw screenshots of Nell Zink’s Mislaid when Rachel Dolezal became a news story. I had heard about the book before because it was one of those “10 Books You Must Read This Summer!” but I hadn’t intended to read it until I read those screenshots. They were all wickedly funny passages deftly satirizing racial politics of the 60’s and 70’s in ways that felt fresh but true to the period. Summarizing the book beyond that is difficult because I don’t think I can capture the tone of it, which was vintage and dark and often hilarious.
Anyway, Mislaid follows Peggy and Lee, a lesbian woman and a gay man who marry in Virginia in the 1960s. Over the course of ten years (and several pages), their marriage implodes, eventually leading Peggy to escape in a car with their daughter, leaving her son behind. Peggy, for complicated reasons, raises their daughter to believe they are both black.
Peggy’s daughter, who goes by the name Karen for most of the book, grows very much into the protagonist. She’s smart, naive, and childish, a welcome contrast from her parents, who are completely believable and unlikeable narrators (and terrible at parenting). Many of the funniest moments come from Karen’s interactions with patronizing Southern liberals. Karen is a smart girl in fiction who does not behave like a tiny adult, an unfortunately refreshing characterization. I found her really interesting but was disappointed that she wasn’t really fully utilized as a character until the later half of the book. Another character I adored was Temple, Karen’s boyfriend. His understanding of the world filtered mostly from mid-century authors in completely recognizable and hilarious way.
I didn’t start reading this book with the highest of expectations. I expected a stiff and cringe-worthy tale that ignored the privileges of whiteness and bordered on voyeurism. I was surprised to find a deft farce instead. The story that emerges is a funny Trojan Horse of a bildungsroman, albeit one with incredibly strange pacing. Zink is unfortunately at this point an oddity in the literary world as a white author who explores the race interestingly and effectively.
Overall, Mislaid is a sometimes uneven, funny book that works best in excerpts. The pacing works amazingly in some places and terribly in others. Zink’s use of narration struck me as charming, but was inconsistently utilized. The ending is by far the weakest part of the story in my opinion, but I hate Shakespearean comedic endings and fun, generally. I really hope that Zink continues to publish for larger audiences. She’s clearly an accomplished writer even in her sophomore novel.