Allison Lynn, The Exiles (Boston: New Harvest/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013). 336 pages.
Perhaps no famous quotation from literature is more contested than F. Scott Fitzgerald’s remark that there are no second acts in American life. You can add Allison Lynn’s name to the list of those who disagree, although only at the very end of her second novel and only after her characters have done everything in their power to prove Fitzgerald right.
Things get more real when they leave the lawyer’s office to find that the Cherokee has been stolen. Stranded with the eighty-five dollars they have in their wallets, they must fend for themselves until the banks open again on Tuesday after the long holiday weekend. Almost immediately they begin making bad decisions. They cancel their credit cards, for example, before thinking to pay for a hotel room. Even if only temporarily, they find they are exiles from the 21st-century economy. Although they display some ingenuity in navigating the expenses of a strange city, their estrangement is keen. In a souvenir shop, “packed to capacity with nearly indistinguishable tchotchkes,” Emily realizes that there were people in Newport with cash to burn:
Nate and Emily would be unpromising subjects for a novel if Lynn had not knotted her plot so deftly. Both of them arrive in Newport with a secret they are keeping from the other. Emily has stolen an expensive painting by a hot young New York artist from a dinner party at the apartment of rich friends. The theft is merely gossip from the New York life they have left behind—breathless email messages from friends speculating on the identity of the culprit, phone calls from the NYPD asking for interviews—until Nate discovers the painting folded up and hidden in an inside pocket of the baby’s diaper bag. Emily can no more explain why she took it than Hurstwood can explain how he stole ten thousand dollars in Sister Carrie. Forces stronger than either of them prompt the thefts. When she finds the painting in a stack of canvases in her friends' study, Emily thinks:
If her characters are not particularly admirable (or even likable), Lynn gives you something that is far more interesting. Nate and Emily make a series of choices that will have you shouting at them in frustration. Nate takes the baby and hitchhikes across Narragansett Bay to find his grandfather’s locked-up house. Emily lies to the NYPD about the night on which the painting was stolen. Nate puts the painting back in the diaper bag without saying anything to Emily. She refuses to ask old New York friends for any help, although they keep calling and emailing her. You identify, not with them as persons (limited and defective as they are), but with the decisions they make. You second-guess them. You call out what you would do in their circumstances, as if they could hear you. They drive you batty. If their problems were not real problems—stolen car, stolen art, the prospect of terminal disease—you would turn away from them quickly.
“The reader’s identification is rooted in the characters’ decisions,” Umberto Eco has said; “he either supports them or rejects them. The ethical response to a text is rooted in this identification.” Lynn is one of the few young American novelists to grasp this narrative principle instinctively. In the end, though, she blinks. She likes her characters more than they deserve. She wants them to have the second chapter their bad decisions ought to deprive them of. “They would be all right,” she concludes. “Tomorrow they’d make a fresh start, absent the traumatic evidence of their life before.” But the woman is an art thief! you cry. Surely there must be some moral consequence to her brazen covetousness! Lynn and her characters shrug as the novel closes, however. “Anything is possible,” Lynn writes. And though you suspect that she began The Exiles once she had conceived her characters’ dilemma (but not its resolution), you are willing to forgive Allison Lynn almost anything, including her last few pages, because the first three hundred are ethically mesmerizing in a way that few contemporary fiction is any more.