Phew, I’m glad that’s over. Lisa Alther’s first novel, Kinflicks, must have been a daring enterprise in its time (1976), especially for a female writer. All that sex in enormous quantities and varieties. Flouting of every imaginable social convention from female stereotypes to the value of education. No firm resolution at the end (whoops, maybe I shouldn’t have let that one slip?), and she deserves congratulations for her courage. However, interesting and energetic as much of the book is, I found it too overdone and structurally flawed to admire.
Virginia Babcock Bliss has just left her husband and little girl–actually been exiled from her house at gunpoint, said gun being brandished by her spouse. Her mother, from whom she and her siblings have been long-estranged, is hospitalized with a mysterious blood ailment that appears life-threatening. Her domineering father died a year or so earlier. Shouldn’t that be enough crises to fill a book. Yet, the overwhelming volume of the story line is backstory. We get a chronological tale of Virginia’s life, mainly beginning in high school. She’s had to return to her small Tennessee home town to check in with her ill mother. In the course of cruising around town, she meets old high school friends and lovers, and we get trite post high-school comic caricatures of the dumb jock and his glitzy wife. We’re treated to the story of her sexual awakening, her rebellion against her parents, her insistence on attending a college her father doesn’t want. All of this is told in the first person.
Occasionally, we read about Virginia’s visits to her mother. That part’s in third person. We meet her doctor–a competent guy with no bedside manner–and watch Virginia spar with him over the state of her mother’s health and the prognosis that never seems to come. From time to time, we check in with the mother herself. That’s narrated in third person as well, with no break or modulation to prepare us for the switch from Virginia to mom’s POV. It’s like not just a musical change of key, but a musical change of song. Jolting.
Eventually, after meandering through years of manic-depressive events, many of them seemingly, to this reader, concocted by Alther for effect rather than growing organically from an artistic center, Virginia’s backstory gets to her marriage and the reason for the breakup. That involves an interminable account of her consorting with a schizophrenic army deserter who has some the notion that through bizarre rituals of meditation, self-discipline, LSD trips, and a weird act of simultaneous abstinence/coitus, one can achieve, well, one is never sure what. Virginia’s always been drawn to philosophy–explanations about the nature of the universe–so I suppose it’s in character for her to fall for all this guy’s project. However, it’s about 100 pages too long and tedious.
During all this, Virginia seems only vaguely interested in the child she left behind. One would think the girl would be often on her mind, but she seldom is. One of Virginia’s characteristics is fierce attachment (ideas, people) followed by total rejection, so maybe that’s explainable, too. But I don’t find it believable even in terms of the book, which is the pudding wherein lies the real proof.
Anyhow, I found the whole project of Kinflicks rather tiring and not particularly satisfying. I guess Alther went on to write a number of other well-accepted novels. I hope she improved.