Suburban satire is a tricky proposition. The author who dares to wade in its treacherous waters finds him- or herself trying to send up the mores of suburbia without resorting to the familiar tropes that can be found in TV shows like Desperate Housewives and Weeds, as well as the fiction of that genus of writers that might be classified as Updike Spawn: Ann Beattie, Jonathan Franzen, George Saunders, etc.
Enter Jim Krusoe, a high-beam trickster who ratchets his strip-mall fiction into a surreal realm that induces queasiness and difficult moral questions. His novel Girl Factory is set in that epicenter of culinary vacuity and empty calories, the frozen yogurt store. The book’s protagonist, Jonathan, is an earnest sort, the kind of 30-whatever loner who’s content to concoct vanilla-chocolate swirls at Mister Twisty’s until his employer, a semitough curmudgeon named Spinner, gets tired of looking at him.
The book begins with Jonathan reading a newspaper story about a German shepard named Buck, a genetically engineered canine genius who has been sentenced to die at the local animal shelter after intimidating one too many stupid humans. Jonathan tries to free the dog, but things go horribly haywire: “Flinging the limp Scout to the ground, the now-freed dog turns his attention to (an) old lady, crushing the top of her head with a sound that was not at all the sound I would have predicted … more of a pop, the noise of a paper cup compressed against the ground by a heavy heel.”
In fact, Jonathan has mistakenly released a feral beast, and thus finds himself an accessory to a vicious assault. But no one ever thinks to look for a criminal in a yogurt store, where happiness is stored in refrigerated soft-serve dispensers. As Jonathan now discovers, a far more sinister crime is happening right under his nose. In Mister Twisty’s basement, lifeless women of varying body types and ethnicities are floating in glass cylinders, suspended in a clear yet indeterminate fluid. More disturbing is the fact that one of them looks like his former girlfriend: “My mind spun out like a racing car out of control, and then … flipped over once, twice, hit the wall, burst into acrid flames right in front of the grandstand, taking out three rows of the high priced seats along with it.”
Spinner is apparently putting his franchise license to good use; he’s an armchair Re-animator. Confident that yogurt has life-extending properties (remember those TV ads with the 100-year-old Russians?), he concludes that acidophilus, the active bacterial ingredient in the sticky stuff, will keep these women alive in a perpetual state of sleep. He doesn’t yet know how to revive them, but science, he figures, will catch up in due course. It’s like a twisted carnival attraction down there; every week, a group of older men gathers to view the women, leaving Jonathan a crisp $100 tip each time.
Thus, our hero embarks on a quest to figure out how the hell to bring the women back into the land of the living, while keeping it a secret from his boss, who no doubt has in mind some nefarious government-grant bonanza. Even after Spinner is killed by some unspecified assailant (an angry husband or boyfriend? We never find out), Jonathan keeps the girls to himself; he’s determined to play God by any means necessary. Needless to say, the body count of silky-skinned cadavers grows as the story progresses.
Krusoe’s book seems to side with a brutal kind of determinism; nature cannot be fucked with, plain and simple. Men place their hammy fingers on the scales of mortality, and chaos erupts. Dogs are crossbred, and a killer is loosed. The women in Skinner’s cylinders are beautiful in their blankness. But once Jonathan, with his dime-store biology experiments, has any luck forcing life back into them, he recoils: “Whatever look had been alive inside those eyes flickered once and, like a fish descending to a deeper pool, returned to the place from which it had come. Though her eyes remained open, they were completely empty. I turned away. And coward that I was, I left her lying there.”
There are a number of loose ends in Girl Factory, and the conclusion falls kind of flat, but plot machinations aren’t really the point. A gentle polemicist with a black heart, Krusoe wants to sound the alarm for a spiritual rot that lurks among the whiz-bang innovations of a world that can now cryogenically preserve bodies or twist together DNA like so many Pinkberry flavors. Ponder that the next time your slide your tongue down a spoon of green-tea yogurt with wheatgrass.
GIRL FACTORY | By JIM KRUSOE | Tin House | 196 pages | $15 softcover