Kindergarten, Peter Rushforth’s unswerving, unsentimental first novel, came out the year I was born. I’m now reviewing his second novel. If only more writers could be so patient. Pinkerton’s Sister, a work of rare beauty and (rarer still!) genuine wit, takes place in the mind of one Alice Pinkerton, the archetypal “madwoman in the attic” of Gothic literature, as she watches the twentieth century dawn outside her window. This should seem confining—a huge novel taking place in a single day, never leaving a single point of view, and almost never leaving a single room. But Alice’s mind is enormous. What we read is an expansive, subtle polyphony of her sensations, memories, imaginings, and most especially her readings—the plays of Shakespeare, lines and lines from other poets, and those Gothic novels that mirror her own situation.
The cadences of each sentence, paragraph, and chapter fall exactly where they should, and all of Alice’s observations, even the deadliest of the Medusa gazes she casts upon her neighbors, are extravagantly sophisticated and beautiful. Here, in a throwaway moment, Alice reflects upon poems of Longfellow and Poe that happen to share the name (“Annie”) of her own childhood friend:
To read a poem with the name of someone you knew was like coming across a painting of a place where you had been. You saw more than was in front of you.
When you look at a painting of a place you’ve been, you see more than what’s in front of you because your memory of a real place supplies what’s missing from beyond the frame. When you read a poem with the name of someone you know, you see more than what’s in front of you because the coincidence has spurred your imagination to substitute a real person for a poetical construct. With two deft sentences, Rushforth demonstrates the need to blur the line between imagination and memory, between reality and poetry, a need that lies at the heart of Alice’s “madness.”
I can count the book’s flaws on one hand. Its title will imply to opera fans, and possibly some well-informed Weezer fans, an intertextual relationship along the lines of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (or Ahab’s Wife or, yikes, Lo’s Diary); while Alice’s brother is named Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton and is about to set sail to Japan, the overlap between Pinkerton’s Sister and Madame Butterfly is not nearly as productive as it probably ought to be. I do understand there’s a sequel in the works, and so I’ll gladly give Rushforth a free pass if he makes more of the fertile ground that he’s left fallow here.
The aforementioned Annie is a little underdeveloped as well. Most of the auxiliary characters in the novel come alive as savagely rendered Dickensian caricatures; Annie, too sympathetic for satire, is still not quite complex enough to become fully involving. Apart from her and brother Ben, however, my only reservations about the writing are extremely minor—sometimes Alice’s imagination will run toward the cinematic, which is something of an anachronism, but in every real detail, her world has been imagined with authority and commitment.
Kindergarten, in retrospect, lives up to its name. It’s kids’ stuff compared to this. That novel seems straitjacketed by its unity of purpose, but Pinkerton’s Sister, while bounded in a nutshell, might count herself a queen of infinite space.