Stop That Girl
by Elizabeth McKenzie
Published by Random House
224 pages, 2005
Reviewed by Edward Champion
In some circles, Elizabeth McKenzie's literary debut has been heralded as the greatest thing to hit humanities since the epistolary novel, if not the Bildungsroman. And while McKenzie is a writer with chops, it is my sad duty to report that Ms. McKenzie won't be replacing the Flaubert photo on my mantle.
McKenzie made a big splash with "Stop That Girl," a story that originally appeared in ZYZZYVA was hand-picked by Dave Eggers for The Best American Nonrequired Reading. That tale now serves as the impetus for Stop That Girl, "a novel in stories" which collects assorted material and binds it around the eponymous narrator (Ann) with sparse details. In an interview at Beatrice, McKenzie revealed that when it was clear that her stories reflected the same character, McKenzie's editors encouraged her to tighten her work into a loose-knit novel.
It's not a bad idea. McKenzie's strategy falls in line with literary wunderkinds who tried the same experiment when their initial stories proved too confining for their characters and ideas. Theodore Sturgeon's More Than Human, Vladimir Nabokov's Pnin, and Julia Glass' Three Junes.
McKenzie serves up a coming-of-age tale in nine separate chapters, all from various periods in Ann's life. There's a run-in with Allen Ginsberg. There's the peripatetic and altogether kooky grandmother who kidnaps Ann and drops in on family on short notice. There's the rich boyfriend in college who refuses to pay for a doctor's bill when he's responsible for the injury. The stepfather who means well, but can't get through to his stepdaughter.
These are all fine moments to develop into a narrative. And McKenzie is talented enough to engage us in a perspective that has the reader wondering if we're hearing Ann from years ahead or during the given epoch she's chronicling.
But her lack of cohesiveness is a problem, particularly since McKenzie herself doesn't seem to be working very hard to tie the details together. We're expected to believe, for example, that a doctor with years of formal education still uses "ain't" in everyday discourse. Ann, as a budding freshman, declares, "I don't like my throw rug," which sounds more like the mantra of a suburban housewife than a young girl coming to grips with her identity. There are the fey Dickensian names sticking out like desperate malapropisms: an English teacher named Mr. Poplick and a principal named Ms. Wrist.
And McKenzie throws away a great narrative opportunity when Ann's mother shows up to rescue her from her grandmother's house after Ann's kidnapping. Just before Kathy (Ann's sister) is born shortly after her mother marries another man, Ann is shuttled away to Europe to be with her grandmother. Years later, this quid pro quo isn't mentioned at all when the mother and grandmother square off. Profound revelations of family squabbles and emotional burden don't factor into McKenzie's literary equation.
Of course, these inconsistencies might be interpreted as muddled details stemming from an unreliable memory. The book is, after all, about Ann, even if Ann's needs and desires seem remarkably passive for a disingenuous gal. But McKenzie does succeed very well at capturing the adolescent feeling of eternity, whether it's Ann drawing upon her grandmother's wall, high school parties, and youthful idealism.
To a point, McKenzie does excel with details. There's the wonderful geotectonic allusion of Angus Frey "using his knife like a pushbroom across the scratched Melamite plates." "A small plane with a green light" flying over Ann suggests Gatsby angst amalgamated with retro technology, even when a heavy-handed log metaphor falls flat. Memory itself is channeled as Ann and her stepfather bang out things they can remember on a Smith Corona.
But the book's problematic elements dwarf these achievements. There are labored similes ("like a naked stomach that hadn't been out on the beach all summer") and clunky imagery ("a plastic bag full of marijuana in her suitcase as big as a submarine sandwich") littering the book like trinkets scattered across a MFA's playpen. Whole pages are devoted to discussions of favorite books, to Roy Weeks (Ann's stepfather) refusing to see a new room, and teenage budget lists. It all feels too much like padding and draws attention to the book's central problem: What is McKenzie writing about?
Perhaps most disconcerting of all is how McKenzie has allowed her talents to be unduly influenced by Eggers' comma-centric repetition:
... and I weave my way out through my neighbors, a whole roomful of them, even ones from around the corners and other streets nearby, all of us citizens of this moment, unanimous in our desire to lift our glasses to the Footes' new room.
While the source of this regrettably pervasive and gimmicky approach has recently gone on record wondering why people feel "old or unhip" or throw their hands up in exasperation, the question is really quite simple. How do these tertiary directional details tell us anything about Ann, let alone the neighbors themselves?
Ultimately, McKenzie has concocted a literary siesta that leads nowhere. By book's end, Ann's been transplanted into a nebulous yet safe suburban lifestyle. And while lack of closure might be interpreted as a risky move, if this is the end result of a fruitless reading journey, then what's the motivation to keep reading? Even stylists as ripe as Don DeLillo and David Foster Wallace have proven with their recent offerings that it's possible to fall flat on one's face when there's nothing to say. Had McKenzie used her talents to weigh in on how Ann's formative life experience led her to her predicament, she might have had a novel to feel something for. | March 2005