Born Weird, the latest novel by Andrew Kaufman, quite tried my patience. I didn’t out and out hate it, as I did his novel The Waterproof Bible but neither did it have me clutching it to my bosom with relish, as his debut All My Friends are Superheroes or his recent novella The Tiny Wife did.
Let’s do story first. The Weirds are a family. Each of them has a kind of power bestowed upon them by their grandma, Annie – but it isn’t until she is lying on her deathbed that she realises each of the powers has in fact been a curse. So Angie, who is pregnant, forgives anyone anything and has been walked on all of her life. Lucy, a somewhat uptight sister, has always known the direction home. Richard has a sense of whenever danger lurks and so has always been safe (and kept his family safe). Kent never loses a fight. And Abba – who is a queen in a foreign land called Upliftia – retains hope, in spite of everything. Charged with bringing her siblings to Annie before Annie pops her clogs, Angie travels here, there and everywhere looking to reunite the stray elements of her family (who have, it seems, all gone their separate ways in the days since their father apparently drove off a cliff and their mother went mad). The first two thirds of the novel concerns Angie’s journey; the last third is, without giving too much away, what happens after the deathbed scene.
Now. Problem one. Steven Amsterdam wrote a very fine novel called What the Family Needed that manages to combine a fantastical element with a plausible delivery. As in his first novel, there were details and decades omitted but the omissions felt calculated to deliver the overall effect of the novel. Born Weird is not as good a novel as What the Family Needed so if you’re going to read one novel about a family dealing with powers bestowed upon them by another family member, it’s a no-brainer. Head over there.
Andrew Kaufman fans might at this point be asking for a little more to go off. Okay. Problem two. As with The Waterproof Bible, Kaufman breezes by some issues that warrant further explanation. The character of Abba is the first major sense of something being wrong. Apropos of nothing, we learn, sortof, that she is now queen of a made up foreign land. We never hear how that happened. Her family fly to get her, she asks them to help her with one thing (checking her husband, the former king, is actually dead) and then they all jet off. Aside from one moment much later in the book when her and her sisters shout about her not being Queen, that’s it. It’s the kind of thing that nags at you as you read. Did I miss something? Has my copy of the book been printed without a pivotal chapter?!
Problem two. As with Douglas Coupland’s All Families are Psychotic, it just doesn’t work and part of the reason it doesn’t work is the fact that when authors plunge four or five characters into an enclosed space, there is a real danger that all of the characters blur into an anonymous melange of the one or two characteristics that we have been told define them. So Kent is an angry dude who says the f word a lot. Grrr! Angie is a strange, mixed-up lady given to leaving her husband at petrol stations. Richard tends to be quite put-upon (because, we are told at one point, he has taken responsibility for their safety). Lucy and Abba largely float vacantly in the background.
Which leads us to problem three. As with The Waterproof Bible, it’s all a bit random – which in itself is fine but it’s unengaging random. Stuff happens. Other stuff happens. Stuff after the stuff occurs. Why? Because it does. It might be that a writer like, say, George Saunders could make the random work because his prose would be incredibly good but Kaufman isn’t a prose stylist like Saunders. It’s all a bit flat and as the novel proceeds the flat becomes somewhat testing. Why am I reading this book – instead of another book? The answer, of course, is that Kaufman has produced two very good novellas. We’ll call them goodwill. With a second novel under his belt, though, a pattern is starting to emerge. If Kaufman were a racehorse, I’d be saying that he was the kind of racehorse who would be likely to win over short distances and lose in longer races.
Any Cop?: Disappointing but an improvement on his last novel.