This novel is all voice and what a voice it is! Acerbic, irreverent, anti-everything but mostly anti-male, it is also witty, funny and very, very smart. It's the voice of a young woman who is judgmental and impatient and, quite surprisingly, she can see herself with the same objective clarity she applies to others, and that is what turns this insufferable person into someone the reader enjoys.
The voice belongs to Nell, a PhD student at Columbia who is the narrator of this first-person account addressed to Joan, a woman who teaches in the biology department and guides Nell's research in a program focused on finding antibodies for poisonous plants. Nell is infatuated with Joan while Joan is, at best, grateful for Nell's availability as an assistant she can depend on, but overall, is cold, distant, and preoccupied even though, in Nell's words, "For five years I have been your smaller self, your near peer, your sane challenger, your favorite" (6). When the program is shut down after a fellow student dies from ingesting toxins from a plant, Nell must continue the research on her own.
What appears, at first, to be a novel with a biological theme, as Nell searches for viable antidotes to the same plant that poisoned her peer, develops into a wry and dark reveal of hetero and homosexual lusts between the men and women who surround our narrator while she, herself, looks on from an asexual and deeply scornful vantage point on the outside. That gives her seething wit lots of room for serious play among a bed that suddenly appears, toxic plants that get ingested, confessions of hopeless love, and a forbidden glimpse of a scorching kiss between a man and woman.
While the voice is lyrical and obsessive, the tone is a mixture of directness and innocence, and from the first page to the last, the narrative advances briskly, abounding in assertions, uttered by Nell, to Joan, the specific person she is addressing through much of the novel:
"Anybody should punch anybody in the face with beauty, at any time, without getting punched back by a penis" (33). Nell is observing two people talking, one a young, newly-enrolled female student, the other an older male staff member who happens to be Joan's philandering husband. Nell watches him salivate over this beautiful woman while he answers her question about laundry options.
"Junior met Veronica on the steps of [the Metropolitian] museum, married her, missed Tom's birth at McCloskey's Bar, and died shortly thereafter of liver disease. Tom doesn't drink for that reason and lives instead in the self-intoxicated state of medieval unicorn daydreaming, his substitute vice" (40). Nell is speaking here about Tom, her ex-boyfriend, and his parents. This is an example of how Nell's casual observations always strike a note of wisdom and here, the wisdom I find is equating dreaminess, or the tendency to avoid grounded, practical pursuits, with the addiction of alcohol.
"I looked at Carlo and felt his brain operated inwardly—it wasn't love for others that fed him, it was a kind of problem solving that left him feeling clean and actual" (65). The idea that a brain, probably the most hidden and inscrutable part of the human anatomy, can operate in an inward, or outward way is preposterous, but the beauty of this phrase is that it makes perfect abstract sense because it describes so evocatively the kind of maniacal and aggressive problem solving that often is intrusive. For instance, later in the novel, when Carlo learns that Nell sleeps on the floor of her apartment because she doesn't have a bed, he buys her one and has it delivered to Joan's address, where it will become a prop.
"'Excuse me,' Mendelson said neatly, his pranayama-trained low blood pressure boiling somewhere deep under his skin" (151). Mendelson only appears once, so he is never developed as a rounded character, but as in the previous sentence, Dinerstein avoids cliché because pranayama-trained is so very specific and the wry tone gives it humor. It is another physical impossibility (that boiling blood pressure), yet it is magnificently evocative of a certain type of person.
Here is where the bed becomes useful: "We knew the dance. We knew every step of the dance. I had no idea bodies could memorize anything so well. We were terrible and inebriated and the plastic-wrapped mattress was less grounding than the surface of the moon but it was the deluxe moment when your external life sees your internal life and therefore sees you at your best. The Hindi lyrics I'd heard hundreds of times burst from my lips like a formula" (156). I'll end with this one because it gives me so much pleasure. Rounded characters, as opposed to flat characters, always contain contradictions, just as real people do. Nell has been a consistently judgmental observer up to this point, but her behavior at this party (where the kiss was glimpsed) is completely surprising, though believable. The party is at Joan's house where Nell, Carlo, Tom, and Nell's good friend Mishti have gathered. At this point, the reader knows that Nell and Mishti are fans of Bollywood and have spent many afternoons together watching the popular Indian movies. When the mattress arrives, in the middle of the party, Carlo drops it down onto the floor, and Nell and Mishti spontaneously start to dance on the top of it, mimicking the moves they know so well from the movies, singing some kind of Bollywood anthem. And it is so true that a "deluxe moment" is when a person can take a chance and reveal an unknown part of her life to people who only know her from the outside, that is, with her clothes on. Knight touches on something very dear to me, basically, that dancing expresses a person's private aspirations (i.e. to inhabit the music, to fling off the stiff and awkward outside self) and for that reason, it is immensely revealing of the naked, private self to people who know you only as a clothed and circumspect person.
So, what can be learned from this voice-heavy novel? What I take away is that voice alone can drive narrative because, after all, voice is character distilled down to the essential. The other bit that the examples I've chosen illustrate, is humor. I've mentioned this several times and want to offer an insight now that I've come to the end of my remarks. What's apparent to me is that when the voice is this extreme and serious, this honest and to the point, it becomes very funny, almost in spite of itself. And this kind of accidental humor, appearing regularly in sentences like the ones I've quoted, is glorious.
Knight, Rebecca Dinerstein. Hex. New York: Penguin, 2021.