The cover of Kira Henehan’s debut novel (winner of the Milkweed National Fiction Prize) is as opaque and dreamlike as the novel itself. Full of lots of sly good humor, that will probably be overbearing to some, but I found it great good fun.The plot is mysterious, the characters enigmatic, and the resolution is, if not unexpected, a fitting conclusion. I want to say all I ask of fiction… but that’s not exactly true. If the fiction is inventive, original and moves along without bogging down, that goes a long way to satisfying my reading tastes.
The novel is full of puppets (large and small), puppet craftsmen, puppet masters (they really pull the strings), peopled by characters who are hard to describe because they are seen in different ways by different people. Are they beautiful, or ugly? Are they large, or normal sized? Characters of crumbling and fading visage (Finley’s word), and “pleasing countenance”. The snack of choice is shrimps (dipped of course). And who is Finley?
Amongst the group of “detectives”, Finley (not her real name), is a woman with no memory of her history. There is only her presence in the group. A woman “assigned” to an investigation. Finley has straight (should be curly) red hair (but is oddly missing freckles). She has yellow eyes, milky skin. She carries a snake named Lavendar around in a bag. She characterizes herself as confused, besotted, suspicious, paranoid, appearing insane, yet desirable: “desirable with insanity.”
One of the attributes of which Finley is most proud, is her ability to stare down anyone. In a scene reminiscent of Beckett (Watt especially), her talent also reveals her forgotten past.
I can win any contest involving silence or stillness or maintaining a straight face. I once, presumably out of some heartfelt anger, maintained a silence for so long I forgot who I was. With speech went character, with character memory, with memory me. All I can recall from that time was the feeling of being something very very small, encased within some sort of roomy cocoon. I was encased entirely; that was before Binelli gave me the new papers.
Binelli is the Puppet Master, the leader of a group that includes not only Finley, but Murphy, and The Lamb. Finley’s first (or next) assignment is to investigate Up All Puppets (which turns out to be Uppal Puppets, an organization the head of whom is Professor Uppal). Why? We don’t know, other than that the Puppet Master himself (Binelli) has commanded her so. Finley’s story is ostensibly about her investigation, but is really about her self-discovery. And her free will. There is a sly connection between the ‘puppet’ imagery, and her own quest for identity. Do puppets have free will? Of course not. When she understands that she is Binelli’s puppet, she eventually cuts the strings. The turning point in her self-discovery is when she’s at a dance (“a dance is an unlocking thing”), and senses that in Kiki B, there is an odd connection. They are like “photographic negatives” of each other.
Her ‘boyfriend’ Murphy (he of the nervous jangling of the marbles in his pocket – he has all her marbles??) points out the eerie connection between her and Kiki B.
If you were to combine…in fact, you would become…
Sometimes Henehan’s playfulness is a bit sophomoric (and she knows it). But we can’t help but smile (or laugh out loud) anyway (and the author can’t help herself either). Here is Kiki B’s entrance onto the scene:
We had been at the Tiki Barn not ling enough to make even a dent in even the initial welcoming platter of shrimps when she came in through the bathroom window!
She did not. That was a terrible and willful untruth. Only it has a certain ring to it, doesn’t it, a ring that could be put to musical accompaniment and made into a popular song, no? She came in through the bathroom window!
But she did not.
Or, this, which sounds like a line from a misguided noir fiction
I drank one punch quickly and then ladled another to sip over time.
I knew how to take a punch.
But ultimately, the “meaning” of this playful novel is purposefully elusive. Or as Finley might say…
One learns that certain questions are unanswerable.
This is why we need words like ‘conundrum’.