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Tuesday, Oct. 5, 2010

Dark, Funny ‘Elegies for the Brokenhearted’

Remarkable characters carry Christie Hodgen’s winning novel

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Small wonder Christie Hodgen dedicates her jewel of a novel Elegies for the Brokenhearted (W.W. Norton) “for Michael, who works in pessimism.” Her characters live on a blasted heath where love is illusory, family a horror show, and crushing failure the norm.

Mary, Hodgen’s narrator, is a plain-featured, acerbic loner who lives in the shadows, observing. Her college major in French serves her well. When the universe opens its jaws for her and reveals its darkness, she shrugs at it like Sartre; she stares unblinkingly into it, like Camus.

Her sister Melinda and her mother are early Liz Taylor gorgeous and spinning jennies of self-destruction. Melinda briefly entertains the notion that she can be a movie star. That ends after senior prom. Mary describes it in her usual blunt fashion. “Hours later, drunk, you’re just another stupid girl with her legs spread in the back of a Buick.”

Hodgen makes adroit use of her nonlinear plot structure. By the story’s end, the narrative has looped around to where it started. By going backward in time, she illuminates actions that had seemed mystifying in their rashness.

It is the novel’s characters and Hodgen’s exploration of their secret hearts that make it such a remarkable book. Each character has a subplot defined by the beginning, middle and end of an elegy. Birth is followed by a series of capitulations to the Grim Reaper. Each chapter is a self-contained story; all of them are tied together by Mary’s quest for family.

One of the more droll stories is set in the gay resort town of Ogunquit, Maine. Its main character is a Truman Capotesque former child prodigy come to the end of the road. He executes an impeccable dying arc. “Failure,” says James Carter, “is an art form we are all engaged in whether we know it or not.”

If failure is an art form, the gorgeous mother is a veritable Picasso of it. She upends four marriages for reasons she hardly knows herself. Reckless as only a preternaturally beautiful woman can be, she is ruled by wayward impulses that lead her from one hell to the next. Her dazzling daughter proves to be equally prone to riot and regret.

Maternal instincts are all but unknown to Hodgen’s women. They specialize in morning drinking, pill-taking and general setting of bad examples. Children are unwelcome surprises, mysterious and unrelenting in their demands. Only the owner of the tourist hotel, kindly Mrs. Strauss in her dirndl, exhibits any kind of robust maternal warmth, and she is clinically insane.

All of this stygian gloom works because Hodgen is clear in her affection for her characters. They can be secretly kind. They have moments of unfettered joy. They briefly inhabit a benign universe where loneliness is nothing but a bad dream.

They can be funny. “Les’s business was the end of the world, and business was good.” They have dreams. Self-described “fat and black, fat and black” Carson Washington wants to use her wit and intelligence to escape from poverty. James Butler wants to compose a great symphony. Mary chases the most impossible dream of all: a family unit she can call home.

Mary is redeemed by her darkness. She grows strong in the realization that “something in life is broken, something is desperately wrong.” Like a Samuel Beckett character, up to her neck in mud, she soldiers on, keeping desire alive and striving against all odds.

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