It is 1996 in gentrifying Brooklyn, and Maria, the less-than-heroic heroine of “New People,’’ Danzy Senna’s sharp new novel, perches on the cusp of triumphant adulthood. Almost finished with her dissertation, “an ethnomusicology of the Peoples Temple” in Jonestown, Guyana, she is planning her Martha’s Vineyard wedding to aspiring Internet entrepreneur Khalil, her college boyfriend and perfect match: “She is the one he has been waiting for his whole life . . . He is the one she needs, the one who can repair her . . . Their skin is the same shade of beige.”
Products of “the Renaissance of Interracial Unions” at the end of the ’60s, the two are avatars of the “tangle of mud-colored New People who have come to carry the nation — blood-soaked, guilty of everything of which it has been accused — into the future,” so “perfect” they have been asked to star in “New People,’’ the documentary.
But signs that all is not perfect proliferate. It’s easy to miss that telltale word “repair.” And the ease with which Maria allows herself to be led into a Scientology recruiting session en route to meeting Khalil’s grandmother and sister for wedding-dress shopping could be chalked up to wedding nerves. But it is harder to dismiss her growing obsession with a poet acquaintance, and it is positively alarming when she allows herself to be mistaken for the poet’s neighbor’s nanny and spends the day taking care of her baby (and not incidentally stalking the poet).
Like Senna’s previous two novels “Caucasia’’ and “Symptomatic,’’ “New People’’ explores the fraught social and emotional world of the biracial elite. This is Senna’s world — “Caucasia’’ was built on the foundation of her 1970s Boston childhood, and Maria and Khalil attend Stanford in the early ’90s, as she did. And “New People’’ is spot on with its “standard-fare objects”: Rosie the Riveter posters and Bad Brains T-shirts, Whitney Houston albums and skateboards. Cultural signifiers telegraph the nature of Maria and Khalil’s relationship. They like Al Green and Ornette Coleman, “Sammy and Rosie Get Laid,’’ “Giovanni’s Room,’’ and the cult graphic novel “Why I Hate Saturn’’; they cook Moroccan tagines and plan to name their children Cheo and Indigo. But the novel, like Maria herself, walks a tricky line between rolling its eyes at these signifiers, which are often more solid than the relationships and identities they signify, and relying upon them.
As “New People’’ tells the story of Maria’s unraveling and her desperate efforts to hold herself together, it also explores the complexities of identity, in particular for biracial individuals and multiracial communities. Maria looks white but grew up black, watching “Roots’’ in Harvard graduate student housing; at Stanford, she dates white boys, lives in “the black-theme house,” and “found herself being professionally black.”
When she first notices Khalil, his friends are white; he plays hacky sack; and he is planning to move into a hippie co-op called the Enchanted Broccoli Forest. Under her influence, he is soon “morphing into a race man before her very eyes.” By the time they get to Brooklyn, he and his sister Lisa are “born-again black people.”
If their struggle is real, it is also insistently ridiculous. The novel’s slippery self-making hits its mocking peak in Maria’s ex-boyfriend Greg Winnicott, a “long lean white boy from Darien, Connecticut” who “has literally become somebody else,” using one Chilean grandparent to transform himself into queer Chicano artist Goya Alvarez. But it is most poignant in the deathbed splitting of Gloria, Maria’s black, feminist, Birkenstock-wearing mother, into three personalities, a cheerful hippie, a judgmental anthropologist, and a version of herself who is unable to recognize her daughter. Meanwhile, the Jonestown disaster sounds a persistent counterpoint to the documentary’s sunny racial perspective, proffering, like the Scientology church, exactly the kind of “group of happy, smiling multiracial people” Gloria told young Maria not to trust.
It is to Senna’s credit that “New People’’ resists easy analysis of Maria’s plight. Is she crumbling under the pressures of bifurcated race and class identities and desires, that is, America itself? Is she permanently wounded by adoption (diagnosed with attachment anxiety as a child, the adult Maria has come to believe that “[t]here was no difference between separation anxiety and attachment anxiety”)? Is she unable to reconcile her perfect life with the fact that she hates sex with her perfect fiancé? Yes, yes, and yes, for “New People’’ shows psychology and society to be inextricable.
It is also to her credit that she allows Maria to be delusional, deceitful, and even downright annoying (Claire Messud would approve). Still, there are loose threads that seem less justified, like a never explained ghostly presence and an inconclusive ending that signals the absence of a solution to Maria’s plight, but is also just plain frustrating. If Maria vehemently refuses to be the stereotypical “tragic mulatta,” the novel leaves her, ironically, as a late 20th-century Brooklyn version of exactly that.
By Danzy Senna
Riverhead, 229 pp., $26Rebecca Steinitz is the author of “Time, Space, and Gender in the Nineteenth-Century British Diary.’’