"The Petting Zoo" is a first novel plagued by problems that seem common to authors' initial efforts, which are frequently autobiographical. Many writers use the material of their own lives and use it well -- beginning writers sometimes lack the experience to put their own lives in perspective, to imagine anything outside the self.
Although I do not know that "The Petting Zoo" is autobiographical, there are clues. Most noticeable are the similarities between Brett Singer's biography and that of her protagonist, Mandy Charney, a young Jewish woman who is a student at Sarah Lawrence and who wants to be "either a writer or a college professor." The similarities wouldn't mean anything, of course, were it not for the lack of complexity with which Mandy's experience is rendered, the failure to reflect adequately on that experience, the cardboard nature of the characters -- flaws that seems directly traceable to a lack of distance between the author and her material.
Mandy is in love with Jake and has been since she first saw him at age 11 doing an improvisation from "West Side Story" at a drama club. Jake is in love with death and has been since at least age 8 when he hid in the camp incinerator because "he wanted to be burned up."
We learn early that Jake has, somehow, succeeded at suicide; what we don't learn very much about is why. We are told some vague things about Jake's fear, that what he was afraid of was "the passing of time": "Whether or not one belongs to a time is a question of sensibility, a pure inclination of heart. Jake lived, while he lived at all, in a realm of dying things. Smoky things, evaporations, distillation, mist. I suspect he didn't like the generation he was born into. He was in many ways a man in retreat from his time." We are also told that he felt "betrayed" and "lied to," that somehow the world wasn't a perfect child's world -- "His Majesty, the Baby," as Freud once said -- but that sounds more typical of his generation than it does of one retreating from it. Jake remains a cipher, a charmer who destroys himself and those around him.
Mandy is not much more clearly realized, and she is not, on the whole, very interesting. She is, understandably, tired of the constant threat of Jake's death, of his constant need for attention and failure to consider anyone else's needs; she wants, for a change, "to be up there on the stage . . . not out there in the audience." But those feelings only produce more guilt, and Mandy talks about guilt a lot: "Guilt is the weakest emotion there is and yet it is all I know. Everything makes me feel guilty."
Now, that is not so surprising: guilt, after all, is what suicides want their loved ones to feel. What is surprising, however, especially in a novel, is that Mandy never seems to be able to free herself; remembering how she once said the wrong thing to Jake, Mandyy takes us forward to what her perspective will eventually be:
"Later, much later, when I am grown up, when I am grown and married to somebody else, when I am grown and nourishing someone else's baby with the blood and the milk and the kisses that were intended for Jake's own son, later that line will reawaken every time, every time I hear it, thinly, in my mind's ear, the failure I will carry throughout my life -- my failure to have made the difference between his life and his death."
There is, then, no resolution in "The Petting Zoo," no sense that Mandy understands her experience and better in the end than she did in the beginning. She doesn't want to "hide behind" her "innocence" any longer, but she goes right on romanticizing the whole affair, exaggerating her own importance, never seeing that she was just Jake's foil -- anybody would have done just as well.
Though there are too many one-liners, too many throwaway lines, Brett Singer's writing is often bright and sharp -- "Guilt is the slob who sweats and sobs and fans herself lazily with a three-color advertisement for trusses and sickroom aids," for example -- but what is needed is time. What is needed is a second novel.