Liar's Poker

Sandra Newman
The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done
HarperCollins

Chrysalis Moffat was living under her bed long before her mother died. Now she's going through what you might think is a pretty typical late-20s crisis: overeducated, undermotivated, in love with the wrong guys (possibly including her brother), trying to build an adult identity of her own.

But when Chrysa combs her parents' past to find scraps of her own identity, she finds 1) an alcoholic, now-dead mother; 2) a father who was probably, what, a CIA agent?; and 3) a web of unhealthy relationships that swings around the globe and back again.

Professional blackjack player, industrial spy, and novelist Sandra Newman
Courtesy of Harper Collins
Professional blackjack player, industrial spy, and novelist Sandra Newman

And, oh yeah, a manipulative, selfish, and amoral brother who talks like a foul-mouthed Buffy character. And a manipulative, selfish faux-guru named Ralph, whose morals remain a mystery. And, while we're at it: The founding myth of her childhood--that her father found her in a war-ravaged village in Peru and adopted her--well, that may not be true after all.

Really, it just never stops for the woman at the unstable center of Sandra Newman's quirky debut novel, The Only Good Thing Anyone Has Ever Done. Nor does it for you, dear reader. At times it is amusing to puzzle out the antecedent-free pronouns, the deliberate false clues, the changes in narrative voice and the paragraph structure that has broken the bounds of stylebooks everywhere. At times it may just make you cranky.

Most of the time, fortunately, Newman's gimmicky structure seems consistent with the character's muddled mind as opposed to a mere distraction. Before penning this tale, Newman enjoyed a string of careers as far-fetched as her fiction, working as a professional blackjack player and also typing up reports for an industrial espionage firm. The form of the book, she has claimed, followed her need to disguise her fiction writing on company time--thus, the short numbered paragraphs interspersed with boldface headings. You could surmise that this is, then, a comment on the narrator/author dichotomy in the contemporary novel, but in truth I really think it was just convenient to leave it that way.

What then, is the only good thing anyone has ever done? Well, that's the reason you keep reading: to find out whether any of the novel's distasteful characters are going to do anything at all to earn the strange affection you feel for them anyway.

 
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