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August 15, 2010

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Gritty realities and mythic grandeur

CHRISTIE Hodgen's second novel offers a twist on the contemporary coming-of-age story. Her smart, mordant heroine, Mary Murphy, narrates in the second person rather than the first, piecing together the story of her life through a series of odes to five characters who shaped it, sometimes in the most accidental ways.

If the philosophical and psychological notions behind the approach of "Elegies for the Brokenhearted" seem obvious or cliched - that an individual's identity is formed by the people who surround her - its execution proves deeply, satisfyingly original.

Hodgen constructs the narrative as a puzzle, leaping forward from her early childhood, for example, to the later death of her foul-mouthed, Schlitz-chugging Uncle Mike, then jumping back to introduce Elwood LePoer, a third-grade classmate whose "name was synonymous with a kind of humiliating, pathetic stupidity."

When, in another forward jump, this time to Mary's junior year of college, she encounters a character with the name Le Poer in a French literature class - "a variation of le pauvre: the pathetic, the pitiable, the poor" - she realizes that Elwood's life could have been a metaphor for the ravaged city where they grew up. "By then I had seen wealth and had realized at last that we were poor. You, me, that whole miserable city. We were poor, our lives filled with the stupid things that poor people did, the brutalities we committed against each other, the violence."

Other elegies are devoted to Mary's freshman-year roommate, whose nihilism feeds on Mary's own apathy, a tart gay composer she befriends while searching for her sister, and her mother, a narcissistic beauty "best capable of teaching" Mary that love is not only "fleeting" but "horrifying."

Hodgen's piecemeal approach endows her novel with the suspense of a mystery. How does Mary - warned by a high school counselor that she'll "end up working in one of the city's factories, folding shirts or assembling boxes alongside the dregs of society" - get herself into college? Where on earth does her drunken, lascivious mother meet the preacher we know she'll eventually marry?

The novel's structure also allows Hodgen to slough off the restraint of her more conventional first novel, "Hello, I Must Be Going," which covers similar territory. While that book veers into sentimentality, "Elegies" is the literary equivalent of a hand grenade: brisk and unsparing, fueled by anger, laced with caustic wit and composed in long, cart wheeling sentences that expose the bleakest of truths.

Like Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace, Hodgen roots her characters in the political and popular culture of their times.

Her Uncle Mike finds, in the counterculture of the 1970s, an escape from the petty scuffles of his family, all of them "bad citizens. Drunk drivers and tax evaders, people who parked in handicapped spaces."

But despite its gritty realities, "Elegies for the Brokenhearted" ultimately has an almost mythic grandeur, in part because the story is propelled by associative rather than linear logic, in part because the action acquires a strange universality, and in part because Hodgen's interest lies in questions of blood and parentage - of the ties that bind or drive us apart.


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