by Affinity Konar
FC2 (University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa)
Review by Anthony Barker
I will not start by mentioning that Affinity Konar’s The Illustrated Version of Things [sic] is a ‘first’ novel. The story is so adeptly written that I feel confident that there is nothing ‘first’ about it—surely there is a drawer in her file cabinet filled with progressively better unpublished novels. (May they rest in peace.)
Nor will I try to ‘out-Konar’ her odd sentences and word games, as other reviewers have (unfortunately) been tempted to attempt. Words take surprising, often delightful, turns in this story.
Set in the present, and intentionally ‘experimental’—the book is a curious throwback to a Dickens novel insofar as it deals with society’s losers, particularly the narrator, an unnamed 18 year old girl, recently discharged from a mental institution. She was raised in foster homes, hardly attended school, was sexually abused by her mother’s pimp, turned tricks for quarters, was sent to reform school and afterwards to a mental hospital. She sometimes appears to have the mental age of a 12 year old (and at other times to have earned an MFA at Columbia.) She is addicted to, or afflicted by, drugs, both legal and illegal.
Despite her unhappy back-story, there is no Dickensian sentimentality, no direct appeal for the reader’s sympathy, nothing smarmy in her narration. Her expressionless telling illustrates the deadening impact of her past. There are no tears, no whimpers, no rage, but oddly, no apathy or cynicism. Instead, she exhibits a nutty optimism that once she finds her mother (who seems to be in prison) everything will be O.K. This quest supplies what little plot the novel contains, and is sufficient to keep us wondering “What happens next?”
But it is not the story that holds our attention The fascination lies in Konar’s use of language, and her way of imagining an impaired human being. Mostly, it works—the narrator appears to be genuinely confused—her insights plausibly upside-down. For example, offering a cheerleader to her mother’s ex-pimp:
“I brought you something,” I tell my tutor. … I bring out his watch and wave it before her eyes. [to hypnotize the cheerleader, as the pimp/tutor hypnotized narrator in her childhood] It’s not so much that I want to control her. It’s just that I want her to do as I say…(37)
At a racetrack with her father:
…Everywhere it’s a sure thing. There’s a perfecta of horses, a payoff of saddles, gangs of white backsides hoisting themselves into the air… they’re all hoping here, and for that reason they’re the happiest people I’ve ever seen. I tell Dad so.
“You just wait and see,” he says.
As the race is run:
… The hoping crowd is no longer so hopeful. Some get happier, they whistle and high their fives. Others hide in their hats…
Her father tries to teach her not to gamble by making her gamble to excess. She has backed ‘Patriarch” (a loser) while her father has backed ‘Love of My Life’:
Dad gets excited. Veins mount his forehead.
“Love of My Life.” He shouts, “don’t let me down now.”
…my father yells, “you owe me. You owe me big… You took all my money. I guess it doesn’t matter. You left me lonely and childless. I guess you had your reasons. You made a joke of me, Love of My Life. I guess I’ll live.”
And then Dad turns to me, just as the end is near.
“I’ve had enough,” he says. (77)
His horse wins. He spends his winnings teaching the narrator not to drink by making her drink to excess.
They also try learning not to lie, by making up stupendous untruths. Her father breaks down when he hears her story of how she and her mother came to leave him:
And I explain to him that sometimes we have to do things in excess in order to never do them again’
“Sob faster,” I say. (81)
The presence of the author, as the Wizard behind a curtain, is sometimes jarring—but as with a puppet show, it is possible to enjoy both seeing it work and seeing how it works.
The final chapters, leading to a reunion with her mother, are increasingly surreal (and maybe symbolic—I don’t know much about symbols.) An interesting book, a bit outside the mainstream. It may be more interesting still to read her next book—assuming the lords of publishing grant her a second experiment.