If sexual identity can be cooked up into myriad forms, like rice into sticky balls or candy or paper, and anything categorized as autobiography nowadays is met with skepticism, how do we confront a work that’s part dark history and part lighthearted, self-conscious, gender-flexing fiction? T Cooper’s second book conjures the conundrum—and casually shrugs it off.
That two-part notion is reflected in the diptych structure of Lipshitz Six, or Two Angry Blondes. Part I is a weighty chronicle of the Lipshitzes’ emigration from Kishinev, in western Russia, and their subsequent life on Manhattan’s Lower East Side and in Amarillo, Texas. Full of weary father figures and aptly placed metatextual embellishments, the section could stand alone. But a shorter, codalike section infuses the work with a staggering self-confidence.
The Lipshitz Six jacket is Cooper’s design, as is the style of the news clippings and graphic elements within the text. A Lipshitz family tree of four generations (and “Really Old People Not in the Story”) precedes the prologue. Two photos appear on the cover. The whole package, appearing as though “bound” by rubber bands, mocks the look of an inkjet-printed working manuscript found in so many East Village knapsacks (including at one time, we imagine, Cooper’s). One of the cover’s snapshots, of Charles Lindbergh posing in front of The Spirit of St. Louis, references Part 1, in which six Lipshitzes enter New York Harbor on boat but leave Ellis Island as only five—their tot, an atypically blonde boy named Reuven, has vanished. Years later, Esther reads newspaper stories of the famed aviator. She can’t shake the idea that the daredevil pilot is strikingly similar to her missing Reuven. Same age, same hair, and history must be repeating when Lindbergh loses his own son. As Ester’s offspring pour into Texas, this one question drives her nuts: is Lindbergh Reuven?
Part II takes place three generations later, in post-9/11 NewYork.The brash, clear-eyed narrator is the youngest of the living Lipshitzes, a character named T Cooper.This coda section begins abruptly: “That’s not the end.This is the end.” Cooper has received an overnighted letter from her brother—a sheet of lined notebook paper telling T to come to Texas for their parents’ funeral. The trip requires that T put on hold his gig as a bar mitzvah Eminem impersonator. (He’s already happily set his career as a breakout young novelist on the back burner in order to be the unreal Slim Shady.) Once in Amarillo,T breakfasts at a bowling alley, buries his parents, and attempts to piece together both his family’s convoluted history and a model airplane from Hobby Haus. In his parents’ sewing room, T discovers two dozen copies of his None of the Parts. He postulates that by handing out his disparaging novel to friends, his parents could have been enacting a “prepackaged apology-by-proxy.”
All of this bears a chewed-up-and-spat-out resemblance to the life of author T Cooper, whose 2002 debut, Some of the Parts, was a B&N-sponsored success, who has impersonated a Backstreet Boy, and who is usually referred to as a woman.
The way Cooper toys with readers is part Sarah Silverman and part Jonathan Safran Foer. Obscuring gender in fiction is nothing new, but Cooper hits her puckish stride when roiling her audience, and then (usually) letting it in on the joke. The narrator T even calls out this piece you’ve been reading: “Like women, reviews are not to be trusted. They always say one thing and do another… you’re feeding the same shit to them, too.”