SYMPTOMATIC

By Danzy Senna

Riverhead. 204 pp. $22.95

It's hard to know what to make of this book. It's specific in the extreme, individual to the utmost, perhaps idiosyncratic, perhaps not. I've never read anything like it before.

And let me say that, having written that paragraph, I recognize immediately it may be construed as being "racist." And maybe it is. I don't mean it to be, of course, but maybe it is. This novel is about two women of mixed blood -- who might, in the old days, have been referred to as mulatto (although the heroine here takes justifiable and immediate outrage at the term "quadroon"). A young woman, very smart, of mixed blood, wins a prestigious scholarship to work at a magazine in New York.

Her best friend, Lola, a brilliant African American student, who has gone off to work in Mombasa, Kenya, calls her "Bootsy Collins," but the rest of the people around her seem to call her little or nothing at all. Her father is black, off somewhere rediscovering his Islamic roots; her Caucasian mother is ensconced in a New Age retreat someplace and can't be reached by phone for six months. This brilliant woman, not really sure of who she is or what she's meant to be, is thrust into the (really fairly hideous) maw of New York, all alone, to live on brains and luck.

After a few weeks in a women's boardinghouse, she takes up with Andrew, a latter-day F. Scott Fitzgerald type who adores her but can't seem to notice she's not white. He takes her out for an evening with his odious white friends, who -- in the guise of playing charades -- shower her with racial insults. (I had trouble believing this scene; I've been "white" all my life and never seen or heard anything remotely approaching this level of social savagery. Plus, what would a pretty, rich blond woman be doing with a convenient tin of black shoe polish in her apartment?)

Our heroine moves out of Andrew's house -- he still doesn't get why she might be feeling a little bit bruised. She thinks she's found a piece of good luck when another woman of mixed blood (working at the magazine as a lowly fact-checker) offers her an apartment in Brooklyn.

The fact-checker, a heinous hag of about 40, is Greta. Her friend Vera has gone off on an indefinite vacation. Greta offers the confused girl what passes for friendship in New York. They go for drinks and fill up on Buffalo wings and booze. They visit a consultant to have their colors analyzed on the basis of what "season" they come from. (I once attended a meeting of the board of the National Book Critics Circle and there wasn't an East Coast woman there who hadn't been off to see a fabric consultant and find out what "season" she was -- "winter," "spring," whatever.) Meanwhile, Vera's apartment is spooky and unfriendly. The absent Vera is hounded by bill collectors and obscene phone callers. Strangely enough, there are two matching silver dresses hanging in Vera's closet. Strangely enough, the fabric consultant has advised both Greta and her new young friend that silver is their best color.

Greta becomes more demanding. She comes over to the house with takeout dinners. She harangues her protegee about how tough it is to be a woman of mixed color; how white men take advantage of you, black men take advantage of you. Greta hates luckless characters like her friend Jiminy, " 'cause he's a goddamned honky liar who wishes he was black." And she hates Vera's neighborhood "with these repulsive ghetto bitches and their endlessly replicating babies everywhere. I hate them . . . and the [expletive] honky [gays], who keep moving in -- trying to 'spruce things up.' Goddamned disease factories. That's what they are. Spreading their plague everywhere. I hate them. I really do."

You'd think with all the millions of people in New York there'd be someone cheerier than Greta to hang out with, but our heroine can't find anyone -- at least not until the magazine arranges her to profile an up-and-coming African American artist named Ivers Greene, whose idea of small talk is to ask her, "Are you a quadroon?" The suspense in this novel depends on a secret that's made clear in the first third of the book. After you've figured that out, the novel becomes -- one might suggest -- of cultural interest only.

I guess "Symptomatic" is about the ruthlessness of society to people who just don't fit in. Greta has been ground into psychotic bits by a city and country that don't care a whit about her. Our heroine escapes this same fate by the skin of her teeth. Much of this narrative sounds like a sermon from 50 years ago. But, depressing as it is, I suppose hatred (and self-hatred) of Americans of mixed blood is still very much alive today. However sad the circumstances, the author has found an extraordinarily original way of addressing this aspect of our national narrative.