Readers of contemporary US fiction have been, for many years now, besieged by an endless scourge of novels set in Brooklyn. It is proving increasingly difficult to remember the differences among this dread legion of urbane, relentlessly well-educated characters moving through their aggressively upper-middle-class world of tastefully renovated brownstones, pricey consumer goods made in small quantities, and superior cultural literacy. The markings of this epistolary canker have become as formalized as the number of chapters it takes prudish princesses to succumb to rakish noblemen: the never-ending tug-of-war between self-awareness and cluelessness, irony and real feeling.
With any luck, “The Misfortune of Marion Palm’’ will be among the last of its ilk, not least of all because it would allow the Brooklyn burst to sputter out on a high note. Although Culliton, a native Brooklynite with an MFA from UMass-Amherst, has set her cranky and humorous debut novel in the borough of her birth, she avoids the pratfalls of her peers. Instead, she offers something in the spirit of perhaps the best of the vanguard of the Brooklyn novels: Paula Fox’s “Desperate Characters,’’ published in 1970. Like Fox, Culliton’s narrative is fueled by the acid that drips quietly beneath every city sidewalk where white people gather to discuss community gardens and property taxes. Also like Fox, Culliton aims to expose the lie of polite society, Brooklyn-based or otherwise, its barely suppressed derangements and contradictions. Locked within each character: an ugly secret self she tries feverishly to suppress, one fomented by her poisonous surroundings. Like her predecessor, Culliton delights in ripping masks clean off.
She begins with her titular protagonist, who kicks off the novel “on the lam.” Marion has embezzled around $100,000 from the private school at which she holds a part-time administrative job and has abandoned her brownstone, two young daughters, and husband for pastures unknown. Culliton tells the story from Marion’s perspective, as well as that of her family and other important characters. Like the latter groups, we are left in a state of woozy confusion. Where did Marion go? Why did she leave such an idyll? Her husband is hiding something — but what?
Just don’t mistake misfortune for tragedy. Felonious theft aside, Marion’s problems are middle-class peccadillos befitting her station. Her colleagues are neurotic and useless, her trust-fund poet husband self-centered, her social world of other private school moms unfulfilling at best.
In contrast, embezzlement dazzles and enthralls. Marion’s criminality is at once a giant middle finger to her comfortable life, a way to add meaning to it, and ultimately a means to escape it. She is an ardent, ambitious embezzlement enthusiast, as well as a student of its female practitioners. This particular nomenclature is important, since “[embezzlers] are men” and “for women, embezzlement is a practice.” (In fact, the book teems with such wry little insights that, done poorly, would be flabby bromides but instead are pithy barbs and sometimes genuine zingers: “a homely woman is an invisible thing” or a beauty parlor appointment during which Marion pays “to be held hostage, all in the hope of becoming a slightly better woman at the end of it.”)
While Marion desperately flees normality, her husband, Nathan, tries his best to hang on to it. Nathan embodies the tropes of Brooklyn books: He is a poet/doofus with family money, and through him, we can roll our eyes at his quirky, monied affectations and those of the company he keeps, like a pair of fellow brownstoners, famous for their generosity, the female half of which has “a large smile” and “fashionable knit hats” and whose husband was a failing actor who has found great success “illustrating children’s books about his dog.”
Nathan’s adventures in starting a home-improvement-cum-parenting blog — an actual pursuit of today’s independently wealthy — are particularly chucklesome. (Nobody in these Brooklyn novels is ever a dentist or a hedge-fund manager unless they are an immigrant. Must be in the manual.)
Although Nathan’s character could fall easily into parody or cliché, his profound confusion and deep denial help lend pathos to the story. “Perhaps it’s now time to discuss Marion,” he muses, days after her disappearance. “Maybe this will sort itself out.” Spoiler: It does in a fashion, in a way that won’t allow Nathan, nor we readers, to soon forget it.
THE MISFORTUNE OF MARION PALM
By Emily Culliton
Knopf, 282 pp., $25.95Eugenia Williamson is a writer and editor based in Chicago.