Lisa Alther’s Kinflicks was one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of 1976; it was, therefore, widely reviewed, and the reviews were unanimous in praising the thirty-one-year-old author for the buoyant vitality and good humor of her first book—though some thought it lacked disciplined form and was sophomoric in tone and content. Kinflicks is the story of Virginia Babcock Bliss, told mostly in alternating first- and third-person style, and of her bumpy trek toward self-knowledge during the decade of the 1960’s. Images of her past flicker before the reader—hence the title—and counterpoint the present. Most of the past images have to do with sexual initiation, while those of the present deal with the illness and despondency of Ginny’s mother as she lies dying in a hospital, and with the touching attempts of mother and daughter to estabish rapport while there is still time.
The book jacket encomium by Doris Lessing, perhaps the most respected woman novelist writing today and an acknowledged feminist, praises Kinflicks as a book that “no man could have written,” but suggests that it has affinities with Tom Jones. The comparison is apt, because like Tom Jones, Alther’s heroine is a charming, bright, and innocent wayfarer with remarkable resilience—considerably more resilience, in fact, that her male counterparts in twentieth century American literature such as Holden Caulfield (The Catcher in the Rye) and Dean Moriarity (On the Road). These characters are rebels or victims and end up immobilized—unmanned, as it were—by modern society. Ginny Babcock passes through crises of initiation equal to those of her male counterparts, but ends up with her identity intact and her sense of humor heightened. Her real counterpart is not the tortured adolescent of the twentieth century, but Huckleberry Finn; she is the kind of character whom a reader would be delighted to know, rather than merely know about.
The ingenuous quality of Alther’s heroine, the length of the novel, and the picaresque quality of the narrative have led some reviewers to dismiss Kinflicks as disorganized. While there is no question that the book, like many first and presumably autobiographical novels, is too long, it does not suffer from lack of structure. Quite the contrary: Ginny is derided by her counterculture friends for having an “accountant’s mentality”; the charge is truer than they know, for her story is a balancing of the books, or, more precisely, a series of oppositions between conflicting forces of life and death.
The key to the book’s structure in terms of theme is found in the second major section, when Ginny is a student at “Worthley College,” an elite woman’s school near Boston. Here she comes under the influence of Miss Head, whose speciality is the rationalist philospher, Descartes. Miss Head, as her name implies, is the embodiment of intellect, a model of lucidity and pose. Moreover, her background is roughly analogous to Ginny’s—the daughter of an Oklahoma dirt farmer, she transformed herself into a sophisticated woman, and hopes to do the same for Ginny.
Opposing Miss Head is a girl named Eddie (Edna) Holzer, a scholarship student from the slums of Boston who challenges Ginny to read Nietzsche, the romantic philosopher, instead of Descartes, the rationalist. At the same time, Ginny is introduced to the thesis-antithesis-synthesis concept of Hegel. The opposition between thesis (Miss Head’s classicism) and antithesis (Eddie’s romanticism) should produce a synthesis in Ginny’s mind and heart but the conflicting claims are too strong: one mode of perceiving existence has to be rejected entirely.
The turning point comes when Ginny is stricken with a profound terror while reading a famous passage from Kierkegaard; the point of the passage is that we are all condemned to experience life as eternal Nothingness, and that suicide is its only logical end. In a brilliantly realized scene, Ginny is comforted and rescued from despair by Eddie; Ginny rejects not only Miss Head but, for a time, heterosexual love, and goes to live with Eddie in Boston and then on a run-down farm in Vermont.
Once perceived, the pattern of thesis and antithesis is obvious: Joe Bob, the lumpish high school football hero, is opposed by Clem Cloyd, a motorcycle hood; and Ginny ultimately marries Ira Bliss, a Yankee small-businessman. The rural Tennessee of Ginny’s high school years is opposed to the urban New England college town, followed in its turn by rural New England—Stark’s Bog, Vermont. Ginny herself goes from being a cheerleader to a motorcycle moll to a commune freakout to a model mother. The problem with this kind of organization is not, as noted before, that it is chaotic, but that it is almost too symmetrical, too insistent on identifying and developing equally all the opposites perceived by Ginny. Thus Hawk, the demented deserter who introduced Ginny into mystical sex at the end of the book, gets as much space as does Joe Bob Sparks in the beginning. Joe Bob is a wonderful creation, a comic original, while Hawk is a type, well-done but not particularized—one need only compare a page of dialogue dealing with each character to perceive the...
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