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Sunday, June 14, 2009

Affinity Konar's _ The Illustrated Version of Things _, reviewed by A D Jameson

The Illustrated Version of Things
Affinity Konar
FC2, 2009

Reviewed by A D Jameson

Affinity Konar’s debut novel opens with a mentally-unbalanced young woman being released from an institution because she has just turned eighteen. She moves back in with her aged grandparents and, desperate for a normal life, quickly sets about reassembling her scattered family, starting with her half-brother and her father. She then undertakes a lengthy search for her runaway mother, although her attention soon enough wavers, causing the tenuous quest narrative to drift in and out. (The middlemost chapters more or less drop the plot and read instead like a string of short stories, although this is hardly a complaint: they’re good short stories.)

The overall missing-family arc, however, is of secondary importance. What really drives Konar’s novel is unrelenting wordplay: her restless narrator just can’t leave language alone. Her descriptions and expositions collage diverse types of illogic and jokey rhetoric: surrealistic word salad, parataxis, nonsense poetry, absurdist reductions, malapropisms, metonymy, twee riddles, cartoonish depictions of appalling behavior—and, occasionally, pitch-perfect imitations of Groucho Marx: “The magazine leads me to a neighborhood where people glare over their rosebushes for recreation.”

Compounding the narrator’s own verbal evasiveness is the fact the characters around her speak only in obstructions, constantly arguing and stonewalling by means of one-ups and puns. When the narrator tries (for reasons that never become all too clear) to forcibly enter the suburban home of a pedophile, her pants leg starts smoldering, having caught some sparks from an unidentified something that is “burning on the doorstep”:
“Can I come in?”

“Maybe when you’re not so much on fire,” he says.

“Not even to use the sink?”

“Look,” he says, and his thumb indicates the clutter of a lair behind him. “I’ve got a lot of valuables in there. I don’t need them getting scorched. Or looked at.”
The next day, the narrator returns to try to help the sex-offender (whom she designates “Mr. Smudge”) to bury an opossum that’s passed away on the same eventful doorstep: “It’s my house,” Mr. Smudge says. “And I don’t like you touching my things. That possum grew up here, just like me. We have something in common that you don’t. He’s mine.”

And so, faced with such taxing adult obstinacy, it makes perfect sense when the narrator returns midway through her story to the institution she’s been kicked out of—wanting, we can see, for familiar surroundings, and fellow inmates whom she can at least pretend are her friends. But even there she’s refused admission and honest human contact (and thereby an identity):
I see parties of families going in. They seem happy to be there. The head nurse writes their names out on nametags so they can become visitors, there, on the other side of the door, but to begin with they’re family. They cross themselves, surrender sharp objects, bear fruit.

“Is it because I didn’t bring anything?” I ask. “Is that why you won’t let me in?”

“That could be a reason if I was looking for a reason,” the nurse says. “But I don’t need another reason. Now, am I right or am I right?”
After repeatedly being denied admittance by the Kafkaesque head nurse, the narrator settles for recalling a time on the inside when she sold her urine, which was clean and therefore “coveted.” Then, coming to her senses, she resolves to cut her hair—to become someone else, and to start anew. But the next chapter sees her adrift at a string of locales—a roller rink, a beach, a fortune teller’s, a therapist’s, a church...—all of which promise the possibility of a normal self, but then fail to deliver. None of them, in fact, seems any more coherent or rational than the forbidden mental institution (which is, at least, an institution).

While some of the novel’s chapters read, perhaps, as being more necessary than others, the overall text quickly becomes addictive. Konar’s high-concept style never disappoints, and multiple sections coalesce into heartbreaking sequences, such as a particularly gorgeous subplot in which the narrator’s father repeatedly sends his daughter away, ordering her first not to look like her estranged mother, then not to sound like her, then not to smell like her, etc. Finally, the father insists that his daughter tell him only lies, triggering this response:
I explain that I don’t want to lie to him. Not on purpose at least. I come from a line of honest mistakes, things said without thinking, words that popped out of people who were just getting by. They really thought they’d have the rent by Sunday. They really believed they couldn’t get people pregnant.
Konar’s greatest achievement throughout is that her unyielding verbal gymnastics never come across as calculated, but rather demonstrate a genuinely believable bewilderment over language. The layered puns and the fractured meanings, the fitful half-starts and stops and redundant U-turns, the nonsense and the shamefully revealing over-significations—they all steadily build up into a touchingly confused voice, the sweetly hopeful confession of a very troubled character. The unnamed narrator at the center of The Illustrated Version of Things speaks the way she does not to be clever, not to parade her wit before family and friends and ultimately the reader, but because she knows no other way to speak. Language routinely fails her; she flails, desperate not to lie again, but with each word she’s betrayed once more, once again caught lying. Her heroic attempt to make it all make sense, to provide a definitively transparent illustration, goes repeatedly awry, time and again obscured and deflected and confounded—but remains illuminating, and moving. Her choked-up version of the things that comprise her twisted life is ever artful.


A D Jameson lives in Chicago. His fiction has appeared in the Denver Quarterly, Fiction International, the Mississippi Review Online, elimae, Lamination Colony, and elsewhere. He teaches English and sometimes directs music videos.