If You're Feeling Nostalgic About Childhood, Sink Into Jenny Offill's Bizarre 'Last Things.'
By James Garrison
AUGUST 9, 1999:
Last Things, by Jenny Offill (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Cloth, $23.
IN CERTAIN RESPECTS, Last Things reads like a children's book; simply written and with the language a precocious child might use to describe her life. However, it's decidedly mature, full of intelligent characters and a languid, comic terror. It's the sort of layered children's book most appealing to adults.
The tale concerns Grace Davitt, an 8-year-old girl in Vermont. Neither of her parents is interested in a standard upbringing for Grace, and their respective approaches to parenting differ wildly. Anna, Grace's mother, explains life to Grace through wondrous, fantastical tales tailor-made for an 8-year-old's curious mind. Her father Jonathan, on the other hand, is dogged in his disdain for anything not grounded in logic -- make that a joyless, austere logic, poorly suited for an imaginative child.
The narrative centers on Grace's education, which is mainly through an ambitious home-schooling project Anna has devised.
Throughout her prose, Offill gives life to inanimate things; no great feat in itself, but the deft turns of phrase she employs are clever. At one point Grace, in bed for the night, is rescued from her fear of the dark by her mother: "The darkness moved through my room like smoke. Sometimes I saw it and other times I could see right through it. I never told anyone about the way it moved across me, but one night my mother opened the door and scared it away...My mother rushed to my bed. 'What is it?' she asked. 'Did you have a bad dream?' I tried to speak, but no words came. I could feel the darkness in the corner watching me. My mother turned on a lamp. When she did, the darkness slid under my dresser and hid there." Anna keeps Grace enthralled with books and stories that install a generous spacing between Grace and reality.
Where Anna seems happy and whimsical, Jonathan sneers at anything that lacks the neatness of science and the rigor of logic. He carries a copy of something called Know Your Constitution to wave at the faithful, and is fired from his teaching job for telling a boy that God was actually a monkey. However, it's his practicality and grounding that keeps things going.
But as the real world eventually closes in, Anna's grip on reality weakens, and she begins her descent from imaginative to delusional. As Grace becomes disenchanted with her mother's attempts at home-schooling, Anna plans the strangest field-trip in scholastic history, with stops in New Orleans, Anaheim and the Burning Man Festival in the Nevada desert.
The minor characters in Last Things are similarly offbeat, and include a teenage baby-sitter/mold expert who has a crush on Anna; and Jonathan's brother Pete, host of a show called Mr. Science. Edgar, the baby-sitter, comes across as a hilarious younger version of Grace's father. In the course of the story, he brings her several gifts, which include a burnt, misshapen apple pie and a lamp lit entirely by luminous molds. Offill interweaves them all through Grace's eyes, and perfectly communicates the world of a bright, artistic child. Her prose is sublimely deadpan, and the characters well-thought-out, but the best thing about this novel is the wonderfully bizarre childhood that unfolds and beguiles the reader.
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