ORIGINAL SINS is an enormous disappointment. There, I've said it, and it wasn't as easy as it looks. Contrary to what writers, understandably nervous about being at the mercy of strangers, may think, we reviewers do not sit aorund sharpening our pencils in anticipation of stabbing authors in the back. We want to like books, expect to even, especially when we have been admiring of a writer's earlier work.
Lisa Alther's first novel, Kinflicks, was a funny and moving tale of growing up female and Southern in the '50s and '60s; I can think of no bildungs-roman that had ever taken on that sex and place and time so well before. The protagonist, Ginny Bliss, back home in Tennessee because her mother is dying, recalls her life from popular small-town girl to moll of an aspiring junior hoodlum to fledgling intellectual at a proper women's college to resident of a lesbian commune to wife of a snowmobile entrepreneur. In doing that, she comes to terms with mortality, her mother's and her own, and the reader learns some important things aobut how we become who we are.
But Kinflicks also had its flaws. Too long and sometimes too wordy, it seemed in need of better editing. The alternating chapters -- Ginny's past juxtaposed against Ginny's visits with her dying mother -- did not always work well together, but the quietness and truthfulness of the scenes between mother and daughter restrained the wild satire in the chapters of memory. What seems to have happened in Original Sins is a classic case of a beginning writer's response to success: most reviewers singled out the satire of social issues -- high school, the lesbian commune, Tupperware parties, the trouble Ginny and her husband get into when they use a sexual self-help manual -- and Alther must have listened too well. The result is that Original Sins rehashes much of the same material as Kinflicks, with five major characters instead of one, but without raising them above the level of parody and satire, so that they become memorable and human.
Orginal Sins is the story of five children who grow up in the Tennessee town of Newland: two white sisters, Sally and Emily Prince; two white brothers, Jed and Raymond Tatro; and Donny, son of the Prince family's black maid. The Five, as they call themselves, start their lives in the novel dreaming in the giant tree they call "the Castle Tree," and the reader is told that they "had always known they were special," a statement undermined by the lengthy novel that follows.
The essential problem with those nearly 600 pages is that they present every cliche you've ever heard about the South or about the political movements of the last two decades as though they are really, truly true: that is, with no sense of the complexities of individual lives, with no sympathy for the characters. These are not real people about whom we can care, merely stick figures: Sally is a simpering and sill head cheerleader; Emily is an insecure "brain," unattractive, of course; Jed is a machismo jock parody who spends every moment scheming to get the virginal Sally in bed; Raymond is, like Emily, a "brain," (the kind of boy who always has a slide rule in his back pocket); Donny is a grinning and shuffling black basketball star. These personalities are set in molds infinitely more rigid than the endless array of Jello salads served in Newland, Tennessee.
One can conceive of Alther using these stereotypes to her advantage by ultimately skewing them, but she never does. The brothers and sisters are neatly paired -- Jed and Saly, Raymond and Emily. There are even hints, early on, that both Raymond and Emily are homosexual: He kisses her because he thinks he's supposed to, she trembles with revulsion, he mistakenly thinks, "She was all worked up, and he was about to throwup." You can't quite believe it, but there it is, a hint that becomes a reality later on when Emily becomes a radical lesbian feminist and Raymond is accused of homosexuality with a young cousin, though he is in fact asexual. In addition to radical lesbian feminism, Alther takes on the civil rights movement, the back-to-the land philosopy, the Total Woman philosophy, black power, born-again Christianity, unionism and anti-unionism, and machismo. The point Alther wants to make, I think, is that all such systems of thought are limited because they fail to recognize other beliefs. The point is a good one, but Alther fails to make it in any except the most obvious way because she handles all stereotypes as if they were equally true.
Another problem is the language itself. Alther shifts from character to character in point of view, although writing in the third person; because the characters themselves are so limited in insight and vocabulary, the writing that results from trying to stick so closely to the individual voices is mundane and lacking in insight. Most jarring of all, Alther casts the narration in bad grammar when writing about Jed: "Sometimes he wished he was a girl and didn't have to be the one to make everything happen. If you was a man, you wasn't supposed to get confused."
The end of Original Sins is meant to convince the reader that the experiences of these characters have stood for something. The surviving members of the Five are reunited by Jed's death, and their children occupy the Castle Tree now, looking down at their parents with contempt. "'Gon be different for them.'" says Donny. Probably, but you'd never know it from this novel.