By Haven Kimmel
Free Press, 240 pp.
The word crazy mustn’t be thrown around casually. It contains all sorts of vague assumptions about what constitutes normalcy; it ostracizes genius; and it confines people to arbitrary categories. Invention, and thus the progress of humanity, derives from a certain kind of craziness. War is crazy, but we never stop fighting. Love, which is the greatest thing on earth, is crazy. When we are in deep bliss or griefthat is, when we are most truly alivewe often, from the outside, appear crazy. What’s crazy? It’s a misapprehension. A dismissal. A myth.
All of that has been taken into account in advance of this judgment: Haven Kimmel has allowed a very, very crazy person to run away with her fourth novel, Iodine, and it is a crazy book. It is at once manic but murky, frantically delivered, seething with the dark creatures of psychoanalytical theory and ancient mythology, and a dizzying literary mash-up.
Madness has given us great literature, from the ancient Greeks through Hamlet and Lear to Dostoevsky and beyond. That literature often relies on a kind of double-consciousness that writers give their characters, a detached awareness that clarifies the outer world even as the inner mind deteriorates and invites the reader either to participate in or learn from the psychosis. (Or at least to enjoy it. Many literary madmen are also quite charming and witty, providing their own levity: Think of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert.) Thus through insanity the terrain and boundaries of sanity are mapped.
Iodine seems to have no map. The setting is the same Indiana where Kimmel has staked out her literary territory, but this is decidedly not the Indiana of her best-selling memoir A Girl Named Zippy. It’s an Indiana of the mind.
The mind belongs to Trace Pennington, a college student who keeps a dream journal, excerpts of which partially narrate Iodine. Trace’s (and the novel’s) first sentence reads: “I never had sex with my father but I would have, if he had agreed.” Trace then takes the reader with her to woozy, impenetrable observations like this one, made at the end of a routine exchange with a stranger: “I look back at him: he is gripping his pen like a stake, a make-do dagger to wound the daughter waiting for him at home, in front of the television. Give that little anima projection the ink pen she deserves.” In one scene she imagines her sister falling into a mass grave, which she queerly compares to “a hijacked swimming pool under the California sun.” Her mother’s red hair is “the color of a ripe cantaloupe mixed with blood.”
Yet Trace is also capable of transmitting finely tuned perceptions, feeling in one moment “the gut sensation of slowness, the rubbery stretch anticipation adds to time”; or precisely describing a whole category of people when she notes her classmate “wanted to be a performer but had been given no particular talent.” And Kimmel repeatedly demonstrates a sharp, almost lacerating pen when it comes to people-watching (at a faculty cocktail party, “faces had begun to blend into a single academic jowl”). Some kinds of madness are brilliance without bearings, and many of Trace’s errant arrows hit bull’s-eyes we didn’t even know were there.
The story and people with which Kimmel has surrounded Trace don’t give those bearings to her or to us. She lives in a hovel on the margins of town. Her family seems far crazier than she does. Trace goes to a Goth party (vividly and hilariously rendered by Kimmel) and manages to seem the only sane person there. Somehow, in 1987, she manages to enroll at an esteemed university with forged documents under an assumed nameor is it a second identity?
After just one class, Trace is smitten with her literature professor, who is nearly thrice her age. She breaks into his house. He responds by falling immediately in love with her, and she moves in with him. He throws a party, dresses Trace up like a doll and invites the woman he left for her, a feminist theory professor whose class Trace has just dropped (and quietly despisedKimmel gives feminism a thrashing in Iodine). Nobody raises an eyebrow at their colleague’s barely-legal girlfriend. Later in the book, when Trace’s mental grip slips, he doesn’t seek help until she accidentally injures herself during a nightmare. He takes her to the emergency room. At some point they get married, although it is barely mentioned.
Iodine has the fractured, swimmy illogic of a dream, and one of its chapters is called “Oneirocritica,” the interpretation of dreams. (That might have been a better title for the novel than Iodine, which receives only two glancing references, both apparently insignificant. Or are they? One is never sure.) Dark visions appear; animals wild and tame leap out; people have suggestive names; in cacophonous settings, strange and minacious events unfold: Iodine‘s dream narrative is doubly disorienting for being someone else’s and trebly so because her mind is so tormented.
Trace’s mind is also vaster than most of ours. She seems to have read most of the Western canon by age 21: Shakespeare, Jung and Freud; Greek mythology, the work of mythology scholars Joseph Campbell and James Hillman (the latter is reverently thanked in Kimmel’s acknowledgments); not only Plath but Plath’s response to Dostoevsky; ufology; Goethe’s Faust, Wittgenstein, Cheever and T. S. Eliotjust to name a few. Trace understands much of her reading better than her tenured professors do. Her erudition, like her madness, is steep and vertiginous and makes for a difficult journey: Iodine has a map, after all, but the reader has to supply it.
Haven Kimmel appears at the Regulator Bookshop at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 5.