October 2009

Kati Nolfi

fiction

Misconception by Ryan Boudinot

Memory, truth, and perspective are shifting and variable in Ryan Boudinotís Misconception. This intention soon becomes distracted with melodrama. Boudinot seems to purposely confuse and disorient the reader, beginning with the subtitle ďa memoir novel.Ē The story pivots from 1980s Pacific Northwest to Albany present day, following the lives of Cedar Rivers and Kat Daniels. Cedar and Kat are former junior high boyfriend and girlfriend, now meeting as adults for the first time in twenty years. Kat is a writer (with a ďMasterís in Fucking and AlcoholismĒ) and Cedar is a medical imaging dotcommer. Their early insecurity and victimization are now tempered by the offhandedness of pre-middle life privilege and autonomy.

During their weekend together in an Albany hotel, Cedar reads Katís memoir one chapter at a time; she is seeking his signature for a legal release, his ratification of her version of events. As Cedar reads, he understands Katís account of the past, a shared but contentious reality. The reader soon discovers that the beginning of the book was Katís rendition of Cedarís perspective. There is a thrill in realizing this, but the novel does not deliver on this early experimental promise.

Misconception is anchored by sex and family crisis more than by the unreliable memory that is supposed to be its heart. The plot construct is interesting, but failed. The intertitles are unearned, overly friendly, and precious -- ďOh, about twenty-two years prior, on the other side of the country, this time with Kat narrating.Ē

This is Boudinotís debut novel; he has previously published a short story collection called The Littlest Hitler, and this novelís plotting and tricksiness belong in a collection of short fiction. This is a novel that wants to be a short story or a screenplay. It is clever, with more attention to technique than to characters. Kat and Cedarís almost Lynchian childhoods mature into I-donít-care adulthoods; these disaffected adults do not resemble their traumatized eighth grader selves. Here formative tragedy -- oh, well.

The disjointed structure of this novel, told in pieces with missing connectors, prevents the reader from actually experiencing the consequences and effects of action. The details -- abuse, suicide, bad parents, rape -- are crass and seem to exist to shock the reader and provide a template for characters assembled from unfortunate circumstance. And why are young peopleís sexual lives so fraught in literature? Sex is either absent or abusive and unpleasant in novels about teens. There are lots of fluids and sex talk here but not much actual doing it.

Boudinot is excessively meta and self-referential, from including an Amazon review of Katís short stories by Ryan Boudinot to creating a character who has published a short story collection and is now working on a memoir novel. Boudinot twice compares creation and understanding of memoir to divorce and cadaver dissection:

Cedarís dad talking about the divorce:
ďYouíre going to hear contradictions coming from both sides. Itís up to you to choose what to believe.Ē

Cedar talking to Kat:
ďYou get to see parts of bodies that the bodies themselves never saw.Ē
ďLike a memoir. You get to see parts of lives that those living them never saw.Ē

The intended audience for the book is surely not YA, but I kept recalling teen novels like Sara Zarrís Sweethearts, Barry Lygaís The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl, Chris Crutcherís Staying Fat for Sarah Byrnes, Stephen Chboskyís The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and Laurie Halse Andersonís Speak. Perhaps because of the slightness, the edge, and the self-conscious suffering, parts of the novel seem to be written for teens. The characters range from pathetic to odious. Cedar is passive and possibly closeted (there are hints throughout). Kat is cruel and dismal. As a survivor of child abuse and a chaotic family, Katís life is legitimately bitter and miserable but she is consistently selfish, insensitive to Cedarís problems, a repugnant stereotype in black nail polish and hightop Chucks. The pile-on of misfortune does not make us sad, just disbelieving.

When Cedar discovers that his reckless teenage motivation was based on lies, he is unaffected. There is no explanation for this and the book ends quizzically at a Dennyís breakfast. The reader is robbed of two endings -- the ending of Misconception proper and the ending of Katís memoir. Unfortunately, the plot builds to a disappointing and anticlimactic conclusion. One gets the sense that this was intended but that does not make it less satisfying.

 

Misconception by Ryan Boudinot
Grove Press, Black Cat
ISBN: 080217065X
224 Pages

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