Some Of The Parts
Akashic Books ($14.95)
by David Lenson
I have a fondness for gender-bender books, so when I picked up Some of the Parts and met the first of its four protagonists-a woman named Isak whose gender is so indeterminate that she briefly joins a carnival in a guess-what-it-is act-I was good to go. What I had not anticipated is that the placement of this incident so early in the novel is a way of putting the cards on the table, and asking the reader to start thinking about elements of character that are, believe it or not, more important and fascinating than gender or any other conventional signpost.
The other three protagonists also have "salient facts" for the reader to get past. Arlene is a divorced shopowner in Rhode Island, popping pills to forget her departed husband. Her daughter Taylor, a former high school soccer star, is so crippling attractive to both men and women that she is dwindling into general incompetence. And Charlie, Arlene's brother, Taylor's uncle, and Isak's roommate, has AIDS. Even the male dog is named Mary.
Cooper's rich character development arises from the struggle to transcend the typicality of her protagonists. Their complex relationships draw some together and strew some apart. The novel has, at first, a centrifugal motion as Isak and Taylor flee to California to escape, where they are drawn together in a vexed and surprising way. Charlie decides to go live with Arlene, as his medical condition becomes more restrictive, and slowly but surely a centripetal pull draws everybody to Providence, a delicate and providential place at last.
All these partial characters are, as the title goes, some of the parts, but not their sum. Cooper never takes the easy way out, and her moving conclusion is fragile, and for that reason beautiful. Her triumph is to have created flawed but vital creatures who live and behave within the fiction, rather than being over-determined by it. Each comes to reject a life of typing and restriction, even in the absence of any easy formula for fulfillment. It is the world of a new millennium, a place where right and wrong, blood and affinity, flight and homecoming must all be remapped as if history has abandoned us. This stellar first novel suggests that T Cooper could be the right cartographer for this strange place.