Last Things

Last Things is an ambitious novel that touches on big themes – the poetry of science and physics; our millennial preoccupation with the end of time; correlations between creativity and insanity; and the allure of mysticism and pagan spirituality. All of this is funneled into a domestic drama about a crumbling marriage and its impact on a grade-school child. Even a seasoned writer would be challenged to combine these portentous ingredients into something workable – let alone readable – so it’s no surprise that first-time novelist Jenny Offill is taxed here beyond her freshman abilities.

Offill’s style is arresting, but because the novel is narrated by an eight year-old named Grace Davitt, we’re treated to 264 pages of a cloying and repetitive sing-song voice that rather quickly wears out its welcome:

My mother had a birthday party for the Earth. It was 4.6 billion years old, so no candles, she said. She made a cake and covered it with blue-and-green frosting. I ate the ocean and she ate the land. Afterwards, we watched my uncle talk about kangaroos on TV. When was he coming to visit, I asked. One of these days, my mother said.

There is clearly a narrative strategy at work here. By forcing us to see the world through Grace’s eyes, Offill is attempting to bring us face-to-face with the wide-eyed wonder and magic of childhood. And because Grace’s mother, Anna, exhibits symptoms of mental illness, the novel derives much of its effectiveness from our realization that Anna’s delusions are keyed to the same childlike innocence that defines her daughter Grace’s world view.

Last Things is at its best when Grace relates the bizarre mythological tales and pseudoscience factoids that spring from Anna’s overheated imagination:

In Africa, my mother said, there is a secret city where no one ever sleeps. If a traveler stumbles upon it and falls asleep, he will be buried alive before he wakes. The villagers have never seen sleep before and would think he had died in the night… Another time, my mother told me when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form. I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late.

The novel unfortunately never brings Anna into focus as a character. She’s a Vermont ornithologist with a passion for The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, an arcane compendium of oddities like the Loch Ness monster and "Kamala, wolf girl of India." Anna is the sort of free spirit who takes her daughter nude swimming in the local lake, then neglects to put clothes back on and drives naked through town. She paints a room in the house black and turns it into a planetarium where she gives Grace classroom lectures on the Big Bang theory.

Anna is such a flamboyant Auntie Mame-like presence that when Offill wants to suggest that the character is psychotic later in the book, there is no resonance to such a disclosure. Offill never bothers to negotiate a distinction between eccentricity and schizophrenia. Anna’s behavior on page 200 is no less bizarre than her behavior on page one, although Offill is at pains to show Anna "deteriorating" as the story progresses.

Anna and Grace embark on a psychedelic road-trip for the final third of Last Things. A stopover in a phantasmagoric New Orleans, and a visit to the New Age bohemia of the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert, seem weakly designed by Offill to reflect Anna’s descent into madness. At the same time, these distorted and carnivalized images of America unfold as intimations of an approaching apocalypse. Anna cryptically announces to Grace that the planet is in the midst of its "third extinction" which will soon wipe human beings off the face of the earth. Of course, what is all too obvious by this point is that it is Anna herself who is headed toward extinction. But Offill is simply out of her depth with this material. Anna’s final days are the least satisfying aspects of the book. Piling on unearned allusions to the suicide of Virginia Woolf – and all that her name symbolizes as a literary and feminist icon – is probably Offill’s most offensive misstep.

Last Things is a novel that tries so desperately hard to be quirky and unconventional that it ends up being just that: desperately quirky and desperately unconventional. Anna’s madness fails to register within the scope of the story because Offill freights all of the book’s characters with baffling behaviors and "colorful" dysfunctions. Grace’s babysitter, Edgar, has an I.Q. of 160 and an obsessive-compulsive disorder. "Sometimes," Grace tells us, "he washed his hands four or five times in one night and he always brought his own soap with him." Grace’s Uncle Pete plays Mr. Science on an educational kids’ TV program, until he inexplicably runs off with a female scriptwriter. And Grace’s father, Jonathan, a pedantic rationalist who teaches chemistry at a parochial school, suffers a nervous breakdown when he’s fired from his job (for questioning the school’s stand on creationism). Out of work, Jonathan hides for days in the basement of the house. He is rehabilitated when he dyes his hair brown and replaces Uncle Pete on television as Mr. Science.

The plot contrivances and outlandish personalities are so worked-up and overwritten that Last Things at times resembles one of those "house full o’ nuts" screwball comedies like Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You or Arsenic and Old Lace. The old movie comedies, however, were always smart enough to present a degree of baseline "normalcy" that the oddball characters were either responding to or rebelling against. Last Things is too relentlessly postmodern to bother with rationality or normalcy, so Anna’s insanity has no real-world coordinates or perspective by which we can be emotionally moved.

Jenny Offill is unquestionably a writer of promise, and Last Things has moments of dreamlike enchantment that make for a distinctive debut. This is a novel marred by an overabundance of clever ideas, a not uncommon dilemma faced by young writers with talent to burn but not much – or too much – to say. Wall-to-wall whimsy is no substitute for narrative coherence. When everyone and everything is out of the ordinary, there’s nothing really at stake, and nothing to engage us beyond a gawker’s curiosity to turn the pages and marvel at the freak show.

Bob Wake