Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles by Kira HenehanI couldn't fully digest this slim, surprisingly dense, little book, but I loved it, and I plan to read it at least a few more times until I finally figure it out. It's a surreal combination of detective novel and tale of self-discovery, set in an alternate reality with a plot that curves and folds in on itself enough times to make your head spin. Amazingly, instead of throwing the book down in frustration after finishing it, I was ready to pick it up again and start over from the beginning to see if I could actually make sense of each succinct, bitingly witty chapter. In Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles, Kira Henehan’s Milkweed National Prize-winning debut novel, things are just slightly off, and I never felt like I was completely following the story's events, or the narrator's pattern of logic. That’s OK, though, because the narrator, Finley, really didn’t seem to know what was going on, either. Finley is an investigator whose assignment involves one of her Most Hated Things: puppets. The objective of the investigation is unclear, but it seems that Finley is off to a rocky start. After several pages devoted to Finley’s task of investigating Up All Puppets! despite her misgivings, we learn that she is, in fact, investigating Uppal Puppets, the pride and joy of Mr. Uppal, an eccentric Indian man across the room who is certainly not the Puppet Man-turned-Lacrosse-Team Remnant that she has been flirting with all night.
Finley’s story, which is actually a meticulous record of her assignment, reads like the tale one of the dolls on Joss Whedon’s show Dollhouse might tell, if before entering the Dollhouse and having her mind wiped clean, she had been a poet and simply couldn’t shake the habit of using carefully chosen words in startlingly bright phrases, even if she couldn't remember her own name. Finley has no recollection of her past, though her co-investigators hint at things they know about her from “before.” Her identity (and Russian heritage, despite her flaming red hair and yellow eyes) is fabricated, given to her by Binelli, a man to whom she pledges allegiance and obedience. The novel is as much about Finley’s discovery of her self as it is about her investigation of the puppet situation, which may or may not be related to her personal discovery mission. The events in the story are really just one absurd moment after another, many of which involve shrimp. Specifically, the delicious shrimp with special dipping sauce that Tiki Ty (known to all but Finley as Tiki Thai) sells in his Tiki Barn, a “large bright generous sort of bookstore-slash-vintage surfing memorabilia museum.”
Though much of the story happens in scenes that are mostly sequential but hard to pin down on a timeline, there are a few passages in the book that are clearly grounded in one time span and focused on one topic. These are the occasions when Finley diverges from her telling of her investigation and its related events to relay a few of her theories behind the freakish intelligence of The Lamb, another investigator that Finley alternately loves and hates. These theories take the form of complete, coherent stories, told as modern fairy tales resulting in the creation of the freakishly intelligent woman. The stories themselves are works of art, and their inclusion in Finley’s own story is genius. The fact that these delightful stories come from Finley, whose thought process seems less than logical, leads the reader to wonder if she's perhaps some sort of savant. Her naďve genius seems plausible, given her awkwardness and difficulty deciphering standard social norms. Around Finley, awkward near-kisses abound, despite a lack of provocation.
It’s a fascinating book about an entirely enigmatic cast of characters in madcap situations, all told in a dreamy, surreal style that reads almost like poetry, yet it is also really funny. Throughout the novel, Finley pays very careful attention to the words she chooses, often including her rationale behind her word choice as part of an anecdote or explanation. This specificity undoubtedly mirrors the author’s own, and is an integral part of the constellation that is this book. Never before have I read a book that so delights in the words of the text themselves; Finley's frequent misunderstandings due to pronunciation differences and word choice add a smart dose of humor, and her off-the-cuff remarks are witty and often surprising. The word “impressionistic” has been used to describe Henehan’s writing, and I think this perfect: subtle daubs of phrase smear together and loosely shape people and places that ultimately form a unique portrait of a very specific, stylized vision of one woman's curiosity.
Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles by Kira Henehan