rev. of Last Things by Jenny Offill

Issue #79
Fall 1999

Last Things 
A novel by Jenny Offill. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. $23.00 cloth. Reviewed by Fred Leebron.

Jenny Offill’s stunning debut novel,
Last Things, captures the crucial years in the life of a young narrator trying to choose between a conventional but remote father and a mesmerizing but insane mother.

In the mid-1980’s, Grace Davitt is a seven-year-old living in a small Vermont town, only child to Jonathan, a high-school chemistry teacher, and Anna, an underemployed ornithologist at the local raptor center. While Jonathan is prone to pragmatism, Anna continually lives in a world of skewed invention, inspiring her daughter with a new alphabet and an array of knowledge that attempts to make sense of a random and arbitrary world. Both the reader and Grace must respond to these moments by trying to understand what appear to be anecdotes, but are actually bursts of stories within the larger story of the novel. Throughout, a seamless, compressed lucidity characterizes the prose, which is at once descriptive and philosophic: “I sat on the edge of the bathtub and watched my mother put on her face. Outside, the trees were breaking themselves into pieces. Ice tapped against the glass. My mother went to the window and rubbed away the steam. ‘Listen, Grace,’ she said, ‘I think someone’s speaking to us in code.’

Surprising details are so frequent they become the norm, yet the plethora of such discoveries is never numbing. Short declarative sentences like “I had once seen my father eat a raisin-and-mayonnaise sandwich when there was nothing else around” are almost instantly followed by only more enlightenment: “Once, when my mother went away for a weekend, he read me an entire book about the evolution of squirrels.” The storytelling is a wondrous mix of the associative and the chronological, with linear aspects so tied to the diverse elements of this novel of ideas (the meaning of life, the nature of the universe, the problem of family) that the effect is simply dazzling.

It comes as no surprise that Grace’s favorite book in this engaging mayhem is
The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, nor that her genius babysitter should sit in a chair “reading a book called
The Story of Stupidity.” Offill delivers a light cynicism with feather strokes of language, and even in moments of dramatic fracture, where so much is omitted that in the rush of time she offers only glimpses of the domestic drama, the dramatic arc unravels with a compelling and engaging sense of fulfillment. When Grace begins to understand that she must choose between her father and her mother, her despair escalates to danger and as in all the bits of stories that her mother has told her in these years to the crucial sensation that she has learned many things but does not know which are true. “I thought of the Amazons who lived in the jungle and cut off one breast so they could shoot a bow and arrow as well as a man,” Grace says as her mother begins to lose grip. “I went into my mother’s room and got the camera out of her bag. I held my foot up to my face and took a picture. When it came out, I wrote the date on the back and put it in the drawer.”

Last Things is a delightful novel, rich for its voracious eye onto real and imaginary moments of quandary in the lives of its characters and in the larger life of the universe, and richer still for the resilient fashion in which it explores alternatives to any simple answers.

Fred Leebron is the author of the novel Out West
and the co-editor of Postmodern American Fiction: A Norton Anthology.
His new novel, Six Figures,
is forthcoming from Knopf.