A skewed portrait of a collapsing New York City family, told through the eyes of a pubescent girl.
Murphy’s follow-up to her debut novel, Sea of Trees (1997), has something not unlike a plot: The unnamed narrator (her last name’s Smith, and the clerk at the A&P calls her “Smitty”) attempts to keep her family together after her father, who’s left for another woman, mysteriously disappears. Smitty has her work cut out for her, given that her mother is constantly broke, her brother is a suicidal pothead guitarist, her two sisters are apparently powerless and her ailing grandmother has moved into their apartment—which, by the way, is miserably stacked full of garbage because nobody can afford to have it removed. Sad stuff on the face of it, but it’s never clear if Murphy wants to play this as tragedy, absurdist comedy or something in between. Smitty herself is hard to get a read on: She casually peppers her statements with the f-word and calls her father’s new girlfriend “the slut,” but none of it makes her seem tough, but more like grimly lackadaisical. She hangs out with John, who runs a hot-dog stand; he routinely feels Smitty up, though that doesn’t stop her from continuing to visit him. This joyless, inchoate tale is salvaged somewhat by Murphy’s skill for lovely imagery: Cornsilk strands hang off Smitty’s father’s arms “like tassels from a cowboy’s suede coat”; the shop teacher covered in filings “glows with all his metal shining.” But the book is more an assortment of cobbled-together episodes and observations than a coherent story. Just as the search for the absent father begins to gather steam, random plot twists intrude—a long-lost aunt arrives, Smitty learns to bend spoons with her mind. Perhaps there’s a postmodern, anti-narrative commentary buried within all this, but only the most generous reader will care to hunt for it.
Diffuse, disjointed and ultimately tiresome.