The first 10 pages of Sandra Newman’s debut novel hint at delights to come. She has the gift of the haiku. Her canny, funny sketches of the dysfunctional Moffat family had me keenly anticipating more from the book’s alienated heroine, Chrysalis, who narrates the story like the dislocated love child of Gabriel García Márquez and MTV’s Daria. But The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done turns out to be a different kind of book altogether. It still begins intriguingly — an Amazonian infant is adopted by an affluent Californian couple and their young son Eddie, and renamed Chrysalis Moffat. After the parents die, the kids grow up into nihilistic adults who turn their inherited mansion into the vaguely satiric Tibetan School of Miracles. But soon afterward the plot gets crazy, skipping from a chronicle of Eddie’s cliché-filled romantic adventures to a family saga of his close friend Ralph, losing track of Chrysalis’ story until the very end.
Newman offers us samples of her magpie’s knowledge — blackjack cheat sheets, CIA activities in Guatemala, Californian New Age buffoonery, Cairo sandstorms, Malaysian beaches — but much of her book feels secondhand. There are patterns of coincidence in third-generation Paul Austerese and typographical playfulness à la David Foster Wallace: The novel is broken into sections with cutesy headings (“Argument,” “Reprise,” “Scene”). Flipping through its pages, one gets the impression of some brilliant creative-writing major’s notebook, abandoned on a train scaling the Eastern seaboard. Newman’s stylistic tics might be standing in for Chrysalis’ struggle to find her own identity, but it feels as if the book is having an identity crisis of its own. Lost in the self-conscious overwriting is any sense of emotional connection — during a destiny-altering moment of relief near the end, Chrysalis states: “It’s a gladdened, headlong, adamantine life.”
It’s no surprise that a young writer like Newman should be confused in a marketplace that’s increasingly looking for the next Zadie Smith or Dave Eggers. (Newman could, in fact, be sold as a mix of the pair, with a dash of e.e. cummings.) Since this is the era of promotable debuts, filling a niche isn’t nothing. But while she may partly belong to the hip school of genre-bending autobiography carved out by Eggers, Aleksandar Hemon, Jonathan Safran Foer and her late mentor W.G. Sebald, Newman’s work lacks their emotional conviction. The novel feels less like sleight of hand than grasping at straws.
THE ONLY GOOD THING ANYONE HAS EVER DONE | By
SANDRA NEWMAN | HarperCollins| 400 pages | $25