FAILURE TO ZIGZAG by Jane Vandenburgh


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Like Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here, this disturbing first novel concerns the strained relations between a loony mother and her long-suffering daughter at large in the madness of modern California--and does so with a sense of humor. However desperate, Vandenburgh's wit reflects the inspired patter of Katrinka Ainsworth Black, a paranoid schizophrenic and alcoholic who frequently checks into the state sanitarium at Camarillo. At other times, she puts her voices to use as a ventriloquist in a traveling flea circus. No wonder her daughter, Charlotte, whose father committed suicide before she was born, spends her early clays with her maternal grandparents--a strange pair of displaced midwesterners whose own obsessive behavior manages to fall within the socially acceptable for Republican Californians in 1962. The grandmother, fussy Winny Ainsworth, a sexually repressed clean freak, blames her daughter's "acting up" on grief for her dead husband. Grandfather Lionel, a failed banker, who lives with memories of his country-club days, blames Katrinka's excessive drinking on Berkeley. Only Charlotte, a bright and lonely teen-ager, understands her mother's life as a form of art, and Vandenburgh's lyrical re-creations of Katrinka's wild rants prove that idea usually true. When Charlotte finally escapes her grandparents' oppressive home for a summer on the road with her mother, things take a turn for the chaotic as she lives with Katrinka's madness up close. Katrinka cannot (or refuses to) clean or feed herself; and Charlotte soon settles into her mother's routine of filth and drunken disorder. She tries desperately "to make sense out of the psychotically insane things" her mother does and says: the manic wordplay that's often amusing, the fixations on "bi-homosexuals" that usually descend into a babel of Katrinka's voices, dark and impenetrable, hinting of incest and bisexuality in the Ainsworth past. Charlotte's triumph, such as it is, results from her ability "to practice sanity as her own private form of revenge" on her compulsive grandparents and on her self-centered and often cruel mother. Whatever this elegiac novel lacks in shape (it doesn't fail to zigzag!), it makes up for with heart, and a hard-earned sense of forgiveness.

Pub Date: March 7th, 1989
ISBN: 86547-356-0
Publisher: North Point/Farrar, Straus and Giroux
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