Wednesday, April 29, 2009

From the Library: "Zoology," painful asymmetry, and a chat with Ben Dolnick

The task of reviewing Ben Dolnick’s debut novel Zoology lays not in deciding whether the book is an enjoyable read (we'll spell it out right here—this is a fresh and excellent portrait of a quizzical young man), but rather in distinguishing it from the vast number of other memoir-novels that have preceded it.

Not unlike the new kid in class, Ben Dolnick suddenly appeared on the literary scene last year. As such, he is a newbie in a prestigious all-boys school of popular pros, the halls of which are packed with the likes of Jonathan Safran Foer, Erlend Loe, Brad Land, Keith Gessen, and Benjamin Kunkel. Black and white photographs of alumni (all-time favorites like J.D. Salinger, as well as recent grads Augusten Burroughs, Rick Moody, Jonathan Franzen, and Dave Eggers) adorn the school’s display cases with books beside the pictures like trophies. (James Frey was expelled.) And so, like having to prove himself on the playground, this tenderfoot twenty-something Brooklynite has quite a challenge set out before him.

Zoology follows a hapless high school grad, Henry Elinsky, who flunks out of college in his freshman year. Floating in and out of the reality of this situation, Henry moves in with his successful brother in New York, where he lands a job at the zoo scooping poop and food pellets. Between meeting a beautiful girl in his building, playing ping-pong with the doorman, realizing that he is a terrible saxophone player, and being yelled at routinely by his boss, Henry finds himself pondering life’s weirdness and lowlights. So far, not much surprise.

If Zolnick sets himself apart, it's in the moments of his narrator’s self-depreciation, sentences that shine like nuggets of originality in an otherwise saturated genre. Asked over email about what he himself reads and on what he models his fiction, Dolnick told PDXWD that he likes books that “present a real-seeming reconstruction of what the actual minute-to-minute, year-to-year experience of being a person is like,” and it’s this facet that makes Zoology successful. “It should be a comfort,” he added in his message, “to read ‘honest-seeming’ accounts of being alive.”

At the heart of the novel, as Dolnick puts it, is the “painful asymmetry” of life’s experiences—that events and regrets and guilt don't align in a zero-sum game. In other words, we can’t fix everything we’ve ever broken, and likewise, Zoology doesn’t try to answer every question it poses. What's striking about Henry is that his reflections are offered without overwrought exertion. At one point late into the novel, for example, Henry muses, “It was hard to imagine now that I’d woken up that morning in a life without Dad’s heart attack in it, that I’d pulled my tuna sandwich out of its bag and had no idea.” Throughout the book Dolnick is honest and real without being gimmicky, and is able to render disappointment in terms that don’t resort to hyperbolized or flaunted self-loathing.

So if Dolnick is aware that he’s in a class of bestselling novelists/memoirists who use their life as fodder for comical and heart-wrenching books, he’s great at not showing it. And though Henry is an obvious nod to Holden Caulfield (both have trustworthy older brothers, lurk in downtown jazz bars, fail often, and attempt to regain composure near the end), Dolnick’s protagonist swears less than Salinger’s, and is far less angry at the world. Treading much the same territory with much the same outcome, Dolnick has produced another young male book on being young and male, but while adding something nice to the pot at the same time.

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