Lisa Alther’s first published novel, Kinflicks, functions on three levels. First, it is a cultural history of America from the 1960’s to the 1970’s. Second, it is a maturation novel of a young American woman during that time. Third, it is a philosophical novel that explores the value of life and questions whether suffering, death, and life have meaning.
As a cultural history, Kinflicks looks at the effect the war in Vietnam had on the United States. As Ginny becomes more aware of the war, she loses her innocence. She moves from being a flag-twirling teenager who dates a gum-chewing football star to being a lesbian, vegetarian war protester who joins the revolution against the establishment. Like other Americans, she can no longer conform to traditional patriotic and family values, such as settling down to be a housewife and mother; even after she marries and has a child, she becomes intimate with an Army deserter. The Vietnam War changed America forever.
As a maturation novel, Kinflicks examines Ginny’s search for an identity. This search is symbolized by her hairstyles, which always reflect someone else. For example, while dating the football player, she wears a ponytail. She teases her hair when she dates the biker, then puts it in a bun to imitate Miss Head. Eddie takes down the bun and braids Ginny’s hair like her own. In short, Ginny always takes on the identity of the person she is with.
It is worth noting that Ginny is trying to find her way in a patriarchy, but she finds meaning only in her relationships with other women and girls—her mother, Miss Head, Eddie, and Wendy. Her relationships with men always seem to be disrupted by sex and sexual problems.
One of Ginny’s fears is that she will take on her mother’s personality and her burdens. She needs to escape her mother’s influence to avoid such a fate. In the end Ginny comes full circle, returning to her home after marrying and becoming a mother. Ginny, however, does not resign herself to that life, and the way that she gets there ensures that she is not following in her mother’s footsteps. In the end, she is not sure who she is because she has no referent by which to define herself.
Finally, Kinflicks explores deeper questions. With Ginny, the reader considers conformity, then nonconformity, then conformity again. The novel moves between a false order and an unsatisfying rebellion against order. Ginny cannot decide whether to give in to passion, as she does with Eddie, or to remain unmoved, as she does under the influence of Miss Head. The arguments between the nun, who believes that God makes the noble suffer to ready them for heaven, and the Jewish man, who protests that no decent God could have let the Holocaust happen, could almost be the arguments in Ginny’s own mind. She wonders whether her mother’s suffering has any meaning. When Ginny contemplates suicide, she wonders whether life has meaning. Alther does not resolve these issues for the reader. She raises the questions in an intelligent and thought-provoking manner.
Early reactions to Kinflicks were mixed. Most scholars who discuss the book see it as feminist. A problem with the novel is that readers may consider it dated. As an examination of the United States during the time of the Vietnam War, it is valuable. It also explores universal themes: maturation, the meaning of life, death, and suffering, and human relationships.
Kinflicks is also a witty and entertaining novel. Its episodic, almost picaresque qualities remind one of such classics as Henry Fielding’s The History of Tom Jones (1749) and Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). Certainly some of Alther’s material is autobiographical. More important, the novel is a biography of America as it moved from the innocence of the 1960’s to the attempt to regain order after the Vietnam War.