Jenny Offill's 'Last Things': a new universe

April 18, 1999|By Chris Kridler | By Chris Kridler,Sun Staff

"Last Things," by Jenny Offill. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 272 pages. $23.

Jenny Offill's "Last Things" is a little novel hermetically sealed within its own realm of logic and time.

The narrator, a girl named Grace who turns 8 in the course of the book, seems to be telling the entire story in flashback, though every point is fresh and startling as if she is experiencing it for the first time. And except for little details like VCRs, the story could as easily take place in the 1960s as in its true setting, the 1980s. This indifferent sense of time is as enveloping as it is off-putting.

The novel also treads ground where many authors have gone before -- it's a story of family drama told through the eyes of a young girl. Kaye Gibbons has done it better, but in her first novel, Offill has an eye for intriguing scenes and a poetic way with language that offers small pleasures now and hope for more in the future.

Grace's parents both saturate her little brain with science. Grace's father is a science teacher who eschews religion, and his twin brother is Mr. Science on a TV show. His world is a rational one.

Grace's mother, Anna, has a different approach. While teaching her daughter the history of the universe with the help of a black room painted with stars, she manages to work myths and cryptozoology in with the facts. Anna tells Grace, in fact, that a monster lives in the lake near their house. She's also an ornithologist obsessed with extinction. When answering a question, she imparts sometimes scary information that would contribute to any child's sense of uncertainty.

Anna's capricious nature is explained in part by accounts of her tragic past -- she had a lover who disappeared in the desert, and her first child died of an insect bite. But the emotional impact of these events doesn't resonate throughout this episodic story. Somehow, her genius is mixed up with madness, but her travails become tiresome.

That said, Offill's dialogue and quirky details are truly delightful. When Anna is home-schooling Grace, she stores educational materials in a closet:

"In one corner of the closet was a model of the solar system made out of construction paper and wire. In another, a chart showing how man evolved from apes. There was a record player covered with albums marked 'Music Dept.,' and a jump rope labeled 'P.E.' On the floor was a small bird cage with Barbie and Ken inside, eating plastic food, and this was called 'History.' "

"Last Things" -- a title that refers to things that last, like stones -- understands that humans are changeable, yet whatever course parents chart for a child affects her entire view of the universe. Here, childhood is a strange, cruel and wondrous world. It will be interesting to see what planet Offill takes us to next.

Chris Kridler is assistant arts and entertainment editor at The Sun. Her work has appeared in The Sun, the Maryland Poetry Review, the Miami Herald, Premiere and elsewhere.

Pub Date: 04/18/99

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