Klein (Cigarettes Are Sublime, 1993; Eat Fat, 1996) adds to the recent spate of novels without events (or with mighty few). And he does so brilliantly, in a book riveting to anybody interested in sex, celebrities, monarchies, gossip, history—or jewelry.
Lucky is the girl named Zeem, who, though invisible in these pages, is the one to whom they’re all addressed: by her great-uncle (last name Zinzo), who is nearing death, who will bequeath to Zeem his entire collection of jewelry (inherited from his courtesan mother), and who has always wished he’d been a woman, trying all his life to live as one—earning the wrath of Zeem’s “sonofabitch of a father,” a character also invisible in these pages. But who needs him? Who needs anyone else when uncle Zinzo is here, talking endlessly, abstrusely, wonderfully, not just about his own life but about the lives of those who have fascinated him most: Coco Chanel, the Duchess of Windsor (along with a choice bit or two about the Duke), Elizabeth Taylor, Katharine Hepburn, and a good handful of the most remarkable (sexually and in other ways) denizens of the court of the Louis XIV. “I am my jewelry,” declares Zinzo at one point, while elsewhere (amid his many admonitions to Zeem about femininity, poise, dress, manner, etc.) he explains that “I’ve assumed the project of wearing jewelry like a woman because it strikes me as the highest form of prayer.” What could he mean? Enter, dear reader, and find out, along with info about his years as a female dancer at the Alcazar in Paris “in the fifties,” his meeting of his life-partner Amad (a female, technically), his learning the “secret language of jewelry” (my, my, such things it says—and sees), and much, much more.
Seamless, sophisticated, and compelling: fiction that wears its learning lightly, makes “gender” become again something fascinating, and weaves out of words a richer dish by far than another old “story” might ever be.