Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Last Things is a first novel by an extraordinary talent, a young writer with the stylistic sensibility of a seasoned pro. Jenny Offill nails a stunning debut in the voice of Grace Davitt, a resourceful and precocious eight-year-old at the mercy of two eccentric parents. The Davitts' philosophical differences over nothing less than the nature of the universe and the ascendancy of science over mythmaking stand for much more. Grace's mother, Anna, is an ornithologist, possibly a former spy, and a devoted believer in and lover of sea monsters. Her past is a mystery she's spent her entire life codifying and cataloguing, and she now bestows it to Grace in snippets of cryptic stories, blurry snapshots, and ritual drives to the lake. Jonathan Davitt is the epitome of reason, a high school science teacher who hands out pamphlets titled "Know Your Constitution" to teachers daring to refer to God and prayer in school. He loves his wife but quite possibly does not know her. Their teeter-tottering marriage finds Grace acting as fulcrum but swaying increasingly to her mother's side. The way Grace internalizes their strife and takes as her own each parent's opposing set of convictions produces an inner life more bitter than sweet.
Offill's translation of Grace's only-child longing into this absorbing adult read misses nothing. The distance between adult-Grace, in full command of language and memory, and child-Grace, whose year-in-the-life is being recalled, collapses into a trusting and trustworthy vision. It forms a younger, female echo of the master at this perspective, J. D. Salinger,inCatcher in the Rye. There's something so poignant and rich, unaffected, yet wry about Grace's observations that she seems to speak for childhood itself.
The social detachment of a girl too smart for her own emotional good motivates Grace's every act. Often left to her own devices, Grace chooses the companionship of Edgar, her obsessive-compulsive teenaged babysitter. Himself a collection of eccentric theories and odd behaviors, right down to a soap and hand-washing obsession, Edgar proposes that possibly everyone around them is a robot. Grace quietly imbibes this Vonnegutian theory and secretly renames her classmates with numbers, "to better reflect their metal hearts." When Girl 8 asks Grace what she received on a test, she lies. Caught out, she retaliates by stealing Girl 8's mittens. Eventually Grace's hostilities, including her theft of the class coin collection, land her at home, to be schooled solely by her mother. To that end, Anna paints an entire room navy and covers it in glow-in-the-dark stars, equipping it with a list she calls the cosmic calendar, "everything that's happened since the beginning of time compressed into just one year." In this womb of compressed time and events Sept. 9: Origin of the Solar System, Dec. 27: First birds Anna will teach Grace the essentials.
Anna's lessons "If one day equaled the age of the universe, all of recorded history would be no more than ten seconds" pattern the novel, forming a secondary story to Grace's own. With lists of birds that face extinction, questions and answers about whether any animals glow in the dark, this patchwork of facts, fanciful and real, reflects Last Things' bow to pastiche narrative. Reminiscent of both Maureen Howard's latest, the engaging novel of romance and ideas, A Lover's Almanac , and the darkly hilariousMan or Mango? A Lament by Lucy Ellmann, Last Things relies on the newspaper accounts of strange events, the entries in arcane books like The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained , and the transcription of Anna's private scribblings to create the world as Grace encounters it. In this fashionable "everything and the kitchen sink" style of narrative report, Offill's novel assumes a credulous reader, exactly like Grace.
While Anna and Grace spend their days in idiosyncratic pursuit of the universe's exact time line, Jonathan whirls slowly out of orbit. Routinely quashing fantasy with the weight of fact, he dismisses, for example, the romance of the moon, labeling it a rock. "Poor moon," Anna says when Grace tells her. Soon Anna and Jonathan's contrasting sensibilities take on the armor of allegiance, and Jonathan's new job as TV's "Mr. Science" hits Anna less as a quirky expression of his reason-loving mind than as betrayal. It is on the theme of betrayal that the novel goes subterranean, lost to Grace's state of incomplete knowledge. It may really be that Jonathan's brother, the original "Mr. Science," and Anna once had a tryst. It may be that men from Anna's past, like the one who first viewed the sea monster with her, are entirely fabricated. It may be that Anna's inscrutable anger signifies a straying eye, one that deliberately entrances the love-struck Edgar. Or it may simply be that no one is very real to Anna, least of all her daughter.
In the psychology of Anna, Last Things' throw-lines of imagination and distrust, a need to believe and a need to destroy, weave their most shimmering net. Here, too, Offill tips her literary hand of cards. Anna's lineage provides the unpredictable maternal figures for many a contemporary novel, including the by-now canonical Marilynne Robinson work, Housekeeping , and Mona Simpson's Anywhere But Here , which features, like Last Things, a mother-daughter cross-country car odyssey. Anna descends, too, from the tragically manic Maggie Barnes, the "woman with all the problems" and mother of trusting Hattie, in Sights Unseen by Kaye Gibbons. Two other recent works also amplify this intensely fraught motherly relationship: Laura Kasischke's White Bird in a Blizzard offers the most gruesome solution for this kind of willful woman while the recent highly engaging debut novel, White Oleander , by Janet Fitch, recognizes the violence bubbling beneath the surface of mothers this troubled by their own power and desire. These women are the kind Jessica Lange would play in the movie version beautiful but distracted, generous but fearful, devoted but unreliable. Their shapely hands tremble as their common sense gives way to a narcissistic need so powerful it could swallow them as well as the unfortunate daughter waiting at the wings of the stage for her turn. Careers cannot reach these women; Anna gave hers up for Jonathan. The startling brevity of a moment, something as ephemeral as an image on a homemade movie shot at the wrong speed, best expresses Anna and her type's vulnerability to extinction, one of Last Things' recurring themes. What they leave behind is often a better self, the Graces who pen their mad stories for them in taut and fearless prose.
It's obvious at once that Jenny Offill's debut novel, Last Things, owes something to Mona Simpson's 1986 debut novel, Anywhere but Here. ffill's is the more delicate and peculiar book, but the similarities -- put-upon daughter, wacky, unconventional mother -- are unmistakable. Both Simpson and Offill like pouring ice water on sentiment and skewering standard notions of childhood innocence. More than that, they seek to show -- and succeed in showing -- a tough world through a tough little girl's eyes. Grace, the 7-going-on-8-year-old in Last Things, is several years younger than Ann in Anywhere but Here, and so Offill's challenge is that much greater: not just to get the story told convincingly but to re-create the matter-of-factness with which children accept almost everything, because they don't have enough experience to call on for comparison. A situation we know is out of control can look like an adventure to them.
Grace Davitt lives in wide-eyed thrall to her nutty mother, Anna. Jonathan Davitt, Grace's father, who teaches chemistry at a local academy, is as exasperated by his wife as he is enchanted by her -- and Anna is a born enchantress. (The teenage science nerd who baby-sits for Grace -- "He had a dream...that one day entire cities might be illuminated by mold" -- is also desperately in love with her.) Unlike her stiffly rationalist husband (who becomes so outraged when Grace's teacher tells her she's named after "God's greatest gift of all" that he sends his child back to class packing a copy of "Know Your Constitution!"), Anna loves recounting the monster myths that light up the little girl's imagination. Grace's favorite book is The Encyclopedia of the Unexplained, which lists "all the monsters of the world alphabetically," and Anna sometimes calls Grace her "little monster" -- not altogether inappropriately.
Partly because her daughter is stealing and lying and generally developing into a misfit at her school, Anna decides, over Jonathan's objections, to educate her at home instead. And she'd make an ideal teacher if she were sane. She paints up a big "cosmic calendar" -- "Jan. 1: Big Bang ... May 1: Origin of the Milky Way Galaxy ... Dec. 16: First worms," and so forth: "It's the history of the world," she explains to her husband. "I thought I would teach it to Grace in real time." Offill organizes much of the book around this calendar, using the descriptions of these cosmic events to introduce chapters and sections of chapters; it's a clever device that's also showy and a little bit precious.
The author does a lovely job of re-creating the nonjudgmental perspective of a child, but she isn't as good on adulthood -- though, to be fair, she doesn't really even enter the territory. The grown-up Grace narrates, in the first person, but she doesn't give us a single hint of how the momentously sad events of her childhood have affected her. As a narrator, she is, in fact, affectless, and I couldn't tell whether the adult Grace was withholding every iota of judgment -- which is a novelist's stratagem, not a daughter's -- or had grown up to be a zombie, since there is already something zombielike in the impersonal sadism of Grace the child. (At one point she locks the little blind girl down the street inside a doghouse and walks away.) But a zombie could never tell Grace's story with the art that Jenny Offill brings to it. She is a young novelist drawn in two directions, toward artifice and toward naturalism. She wants to make her story real enough to break hearts, but so far, at least, she doesn't have the naturalist's scruples about concealing her art. -- Salon
...[N]o ordinary coming-of-age novel....an unexpectedly funny book....The novel is crisply written, economically constructed and so inventive that you read without a clue as to what anyone will say or do next.
New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
With an ornithologist mother who speaks five languages (including Pig Latin), who was also possibly a CIA spy, a cryptozoologist or just your average maniacal collector of eccentric facts, young Grace Davitt's coming-of-age story is a bizarre kind of linguistic ontological experiment. Her father is "Mr. Science," obsessed with physical data and categorical details to the point of abstraction. Grace's world is one that readers are unlikely ever to have encountered before; riding the line between whimsical and sinister, she is a unique protagonist. Oddly passive in the way that children considered unconventionally brilliant are sometimes deemed by observers, Grace takes control of her destiny, in the wake of her mother's unexplained disappearance, by reinventing language and metaphorizing her life. She continues with the rich and wacky legacy her mother has left her: home schooling; a "secret language" named Annic in which the alphabet's first 13 letters mirror the second 13, and the "cosmic calendar" in which one billion years of real time can be condensed into 24 days. Nothing in this narrative is standard fare: a bizarre mother-daughter road trip, a boy-genius babysitter, the Loch Ness monster and a recurrent theme of psychological anthropomorphism are among the plot elements. In spite of Grace's sometimes unlovable behavior, she is an engaging character. When she bullies a blind girl, Offil's point is clear; Grace's esoteric knowledge and novel socialization inform but cannot finally change the fact that she is a young girl on shaky ground. On the cusp of a definitively weird adolescence, she's brimming with the implosive, even brutal, energy of that impending transformation. Offill's debut is a rare feat of remarkable constraint and nearly miraculous construction of a most unique family.
...doesn't remind you of the days of childhood as much as it plunges youheadfirstright in...Last Things contains a magnetic force field of vibrant images, quirky encounters and intelligent humor. Here's hoping that Offill's first novel is not the last thing we hear from her.
From the Publisher
“Remarkable. . . . If ‘last things’ means things that will last, then Offill’s novel is one of them.” —The New York Times Book Review
“Beautiful. . . . A gently funny tragedy about childhood and madness. . . . Pokes at the boundaries between reason and imagination.” —Newsday
“Sparse, elegant, and inviting. . . . Jenny Offill . . . has created a fantastical family, at times loving and sweet, sorrowful and dangerous.” —The Boston Globe
“Offill’s deceptively simple prose, her exquisite sense of metaphor and her ear for humor capture the subtle perceptions of this wise child so that we feel to the bone her burgeoning awareness.” —Chicago Tribune
“Last Things mines an interval of childhood before the division of intellectual labor. In this state of innocence, science, philosophy, mythology, bunk, wonder, and sorrow are all one. Jenny Offill’s complicated and arresting farewell to this dangerous time is compelling as few recent novels on the subject have been.” —Rick Moody
“Truly delightful.” —The Baltimore Sun
“Stunning. . . . Dazzling. . . . 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.” —Ploughshares
“[A] gem of a first novel.” —Los Angeles Times
“Mesmerizing. . . . Pitch-perfect. . . . [Offill] writes with a heartbreaking clarity.” —The Times (London)
“Offill’s debut is a rare feat of remarkable constraint and nearly miraculous construction of a most unique family.” —Publishers Weekly (starred)
Read an Excerpt
"Once," my mother said, "there was no true darkness. Even at night, the moon was as bright as the sun. The only difference was that the light was blue. You could see clearly for miles and miles and it was never cold. And this was called twilight."
"Why twi?" I asked.
"Because it rhymes with sky," my mother said. "It's a code word for blue." Code blue was what they said when someone died, I remembered, and this, too, had to do with the sky.
One day God called the bat to him and gave him a basket to carry to the moon. The basket was filled with darkness, but God didn't tell him what it was. Instead, he said, "Take this to the moon. I'll explain everything when you return." So the bat set off for the moon with the basket on his back. He flew toward the sky, but the moon saw him and hid behind a cloud. The bat grew tired and stopped for a rest. He put down the basket and went off to find something to eat. While he was gone, other animals came along. (Dogs and wolves mostly, also a badger with a broken paw.) These animals thought there might be food in the basket and pried the cover off, but inside there was only darkness, which they had never seen before. The dogs and wolves tried to pull it out and play with it, but it slipped away between their teeth and slithered off. Just then, the bat returned. He opened the basket and found it empty. The other animals disappeared into the night. The bat flew off to try to recapture the darkness. He could see it everywhere, but he couldn't fit it back inside his basket, no matter how he tried. And that is why the bat sleepsall day and flies all night. He's still trying to catch the dark.
"Which part of the story was the part about Africa?" I wanted to know. I had asked my mother to tell me about Africa and instead she had told me about the bat. "It's all about Africa," my mother said, frowning. "Everything except the part about God."
When my mother was very young, she lived in Tanzania and studied birds. It was there that she met my father. He had come to Africa to set up a fishery and she had taught him some Swahili and that was that. "Before you were born, I met him," my mother said. "Before you were even a gleam in my eye." This made her laugh. I laughed too. I had seen a picture of my parents in Africa, standing on the beach, holding a giant silver fish between them. When they lived in Tanzania, my mother said, village boys would wait near the trees at dusk and scoop bats out of the sky with nets.
In my notebook, I wrote:
a bat is not a bird = mammal
My mother spelled out each word for me and later I added "idealistic" to the list, which is what she said my father had been once. I kept the notebook because I thought that I might want to be a detective someday. I wrote down everything I heard, and when the pages started to fall out, I stuck them back inside with glue. I had an idea that someday someone would come to me with a mystery and I would open up the notebook and all the clues would already be there.
My mother told me that another name for detective was P.I. and that this was the word for a number that no one could ever finish writing. I said, "What if you wrote all day and all night and never slept for a hundred years?"
"Even then," my mother said, "you wouldn't be done."
About the bat, I wanted to know: Why was the darkness in a basket? Why did the moon hide from the bat? How did the badger hurt his paw? What do bats eat? Where did the darkness run? What happened to the dogs and wolves that started everything?
"Bats eat fruit and insects mostly," my mother said. "The darkness ran everywhere at once."
"Do bats eat people?"
"No," she said. "But there's a kind in South America that drinks the blood of sleeping things. Sometimes they bite people without even waking them because their touch is as light as a kiss."
My mother turned off the light and closed the door. The room became its night self then, full of deep corners that swallowed up the dark. Shadows moved across the wall, chasing the lights of cars. I closed my eyes and tried to dream in another language. My mother knew five languages by heart and could dream in three. Her father had been a linguist and once she had wanted to be one too. Sometimes she spent all night translating what one person in her dream said to another. When she woke up, she was so tired she could barely speak. That was why she slept all day and wandered around the house at night.
In Africa, my mother said, there is a secret city where no one ever sleeps. If a traveler stumbles upon it and falls asleep, he will be buried alive before he wakes. The villagers have never seen sleep before and would think he had died in the night. If he woke up while he was being buried, they would think he was a demon and beat him to death. The only sign you have entered the sleepless city is a certain unceasing murmuring even in the dead of night. Otherwise, it looks like every other place. Travelers are advised to wander through each city, asking passersby, "Where can I sleep?" because in the sleepless city no one knows the answer.
* * *
My mother had taught: me a little French. "What is your name?" I knew and "Please, can you help me find ...?" Once I'd asked my mother to teach me Swahili and she said, "You already know one word. Can you guess what it is?" I had guessed "detective," but this had been wrong. "Safari," she said. "It's an old Swahili word for travel." This was the word for the shows my father liked to watch on TV. "Yes," my mother said. "That's exactly right."
Later I wrote "safari" in my notebook next to the word "Sophie," the name of my mother's other daughter, the one who died in Africa before I was born. Once I asked her if Sophie could speak Swahili before she died, but my mother said she had been too little to speak anything at all.
Another time, my mother told me that when I was born every language in the world was in my head, waiting to take form. I could have spoken Swahili or Urdu or Cantonese, but now it was too late. "Where did all the words go?" I asked.
"They just wasted away," my mother explained, "like a leg you never walk on."
My mother kept a notebook too; hers was black with shiny rings. I had torn a page from it and hidden it under my bed. Sometimes when I couldn't sleep, I took the page out of its hiding place and read it:
Betwixt trumpeter pebbly complication vigorous tipple careen obscure attractive consequence expedition unpunished prominence chest sweetly basin awake photographer ungrateful.
Tea realizing most so the together home and for were wanted to concert I he her it the walked.
Sun was nice dormitory is I like chocolate cake but I think that book is he wants to school there.
Family was large dark animal came roaring down the middle of my friends love books passionately every kiss is fine.
Went to the movies with a man I used to go toward Harvard Square in Cambridge is mad fun for.
Road in the country was insane especially in dreary rooms where they have some books to buy for studying Greek.
Easy if you know how to crochet you can make a simple scarf if they knew the color that it.
More attention has been paid to diet but mostly in relation to disease and to the growth of young children.
A moth flew into the room and fluttered against the shade. I wondered if this might be the same moth that had tried to fly to a star. But that moth had died, I remembered, or maybe it was the moth who had stayed home and circled the street lamp. My mother had told me that story too and said the moral was that stars could not be trusted and moved farther away, the closer you came. "Poor moth," I said again and again that day until my father put down the paper and asked me to stop. Later he explained that the nearest star was 93 million miles away and this made it unlikely that anyone, a person or a moth, would ever go there. When I asked what the name of the nearest star was, my father said, "The Sun, of course."
But my mother said that that was only one way to think of it and that in some places (Africa, for instance) people knew how to leave their bodies and fly up to the edge of the sky, where they hovered like birds. The trick, she said, was not to look down at your body in the bed, or you might lose your nerve and fall.
I looked for the moth again, but it was gone. Outside my window, slow stars moved across the sky. I could feel myself falling asleep, into sleep, it seemed. This happened when the darkness in the corner pulled me to it like water to a drain. I closed my eyes and waited. Around me, the night buzzed like a fluorescent light. J'ai perdu mon chapeau, I dreamed. Something brushed across my cheek and I thought it was the bat, but when I opened my eyes, there was only my mother, kneeling beside me with her hands like fur.