After I finished Mislaid by Nell Zink, I read nearly every review I could find trying to discern why this novel was being lauded because I couldn’t figure it out myself.
Maybe starting this book the week Rachel Dolezal was exposed for passing as black was not the best time. Reading it while a white man killed nine black people in a historically black church was probably bad timing. Finishing it as our black president eulogized one of the men assassinated in the church was definitely not smart.
This book, according to many reviews, is supposed to be funny. I failed to see any humor in this novel written by a white woman about a white woman passing as black in rural Virginia in the 70s and 80s. In fact, what I often found was kind of offensive and even if I could put that aside, the madcap series of coincidences that leads to a nice pat ending just felt so phony I could hardly stand it.
Peggy is a young lesbian who goes off to a small, private women’s college known for attracting lesbians. When she gets there though, she falls under the spell of local poet and professor Lee, a dude. The two can’t keep their hands off each other and spend a lot of time having sex until Peggy winds up pregnant and the two end up married, because this is the mid-60s and Virginia. Since Lee is a serial philanderer, sexing up men and women equally — though he tends to prefer men, the marriage doesn’t go well.
Fed up with Lee’s extra-marital affairs Peggy drives his car into a lake while their two children watch. When Lee threatens to have her committed she leaves in the night with their young daughter, Mirielle, leaving behind their older son, Byrdie. On the lam Peggy becomes Meg, and Mirielle becomes Karen, after Peggy steals the birth certificate of a young black girl who died. They both pass as black, because even in rural Virginia people are used to blue-eyed, blonde-haired black people. Apparently.
The story wobbles back and forth through Lee & Byrdie’s life as Lee tries to find his estranged wife and kidnapped daughter, and Peggy & Karen’s life as they live in poverty and housing projects. Eventually these four collide in a most ridiculous manner that I would spoil if it were even worth the effort. Oh, and they all live happily ever after even though Peggy has been lying to her daughter for years and avoided her son for the same amount of time.
Mostly the book felt racist to me. Peg is automatically accepted into the black community as though there is no actual culture that she must assimilate into to pass. It’s assumed that because she says she’s black other black people accept her. Often she worries white people won’t believe she’s black because she’s too smart. And then there’s a weird drug-dealing subplot which is how Peg earns money but doesn’t ever spend it.
It’s just a fucking mess.
I didn’t get this one. I don’t get the story. I found the plot predictable and absurd, and I couldn’t figure out exactly what Zink is trying to say about race in America. Other than, as Karen literally says, being raised black is cool. Which I suppose it is if you are white and don’t have to deal with any actual racism?