Being held up at gunpoint either sends a college student into the throes of despair or gives her a new reason to live: maybe a healthy dash of both.
It’s a good thing Vida (Girls on the Verge, 1999) makes her fiction debut with this novel instead of a story collection: she takes getting used to, but it’s worthwhile. Ellis is a 21-year-old Columbia University student walking in Riverside Park when a man tells her that he’s going to kill her, then himself. Trying to convince him of everything worth living for, Ellis spouts poetry, throwing everything at him from “Leda and the Swan” to William Carlos Williams and Philip Larkin, melting his despair until he lets her go. Later, when the police come to her apartment and her roommate answers the door, Ellis thinks: “I wonder if this is how it will be from now on: whenever there are policemen at the door we’ll assume they’re for me.” The remainder of the tale is a short string of nonevents (even the trip Ellis takes to the Philippines hardly registers), the dull detritus of a benumbed student’s life. It’s a frustrating, brilliant story about an irritating person with genuine trauma acting hatefully to all those around her. There’s too much smartass to the book: in a scene when an old high school friend is telling Ellis about a teacher who taught Sylvia Plath, Vida can’t resist throwing in that the teacher “put her head in the oven.” But then two pages later, when Ellis is obnoxiously lying and claiming to have been raped, she thinks: “I feel oddly liberated and I realize why: if I had been raped, I’d feel more justified doing everything I’m doing.” It’s a genius line, ringing true—but sure to be undermined by another poor joke later on (we won’t get into the scene where Ellis goes to the barber and gets a mullet—too much Gen-X irony in that one).
Hilarious and touching, icily removed, yet bracingly real.