Two crafty graduate students plot their revenge when a famous novelist abuses her power.
The collective voice that powers this novel belongs to the classmates of Hannah, a quiet but well-traveled writer with a keen editorial eye; Leslie, an outspoken erotica writer who keeps sex off the page in all her workshop submissions; and Jimmy, a brilliant but reserved poet suffering from depression. When Simone, Jimmy's workshop leader at the prestigious Fielding low-residency MFA program, tears Jimmy's submission apart in front of the entire class, the small community is shaken by her viciousness. Simone's criticism pushes an already fragile Jimmy over the edge, and Leslie and Hannah leap into action to prove Simone's not just a bad teacher, but an egomaniacal plagiarist. Zancan (Local Girls, 2015) writes in the third person plural as the Fielding graduates attempt to re-create what happened the year before they parted ways. "Maybe it was because Hannah, Leslie, and Jimmy's story was more interesting, always and finally, than the unfinished novels we kept in drawers after we graduated and the chap books we self-published, that it always drew us back in," the narrators write, considering their continued fascination with graduate school drama. In its best moments, the novel captures the quirky habits and strange personalities of those who are forced to love and practice their art in stolen moments, in two week intervals, during a low-residency MFA. But it also, at times, belabors what could be a powerful story about institutional power and the collective responsibility of storytelling in order to build suspense. "We wouldn't think anything of it until later, though," the narrators insist as they recount Hannah and Leslie's maneuverings. "At the time it was only happiness we felt." When Zancan at last gets down to the business of telling the story, she captures the fraught environment of almost-grown-ups on campus in sharp, unsparing detail and with lyrical momentum. While the clamorous chorus of her collective narrator occasionally elbows the thread of the plot out of the way, Zancan nevertheless asks intriguing questions about power, complicity, and the urge to tell someone else's story.
A sinuous, shape-shifting campus novel that promises more heft than it delivers.