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3.15.2011

Book Review: The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady
by Elizabeth Stuckey-French
9780385510646

There are not enough campy books. I'm a fan of pulp novels, the types with damsels in distress looking not so innocent for whatever the got themselves into (mainly murder and lesbianism). Most of time, these were more or less morality tales: bad actions gets punished, sex in excess if fun but really wrong. Contemporary novels that are inspired by pulp usual take this concept and parody it. Camp, according to Wikipedia (the most trusted source, of course) "is an aesthetic sensibility wherein something is appealing because of its bad taste and ironic value." Susan Sontag emphasized the key elements of camp as being artifice, frivolity, na├»ve middle-class pretentiousness, and ‘shocking’ excess.

The question with Elizabeth Stuckey-French's novel is: is it camp?

The cover and trailer says so. With a green housewife on the front, the picture is classic iconography of the 1950s; but with a knife held behind her back, here's the irony. The plot in itself is twisted: a housewife (Marylou Ahearn) of the 1950s in contemporary America taking revenge on a wrong done to her. The premise is Charles Busch-like melodrama that is supposed to grab readers. Stuckey-French promises humor.

Indeed, her humor--as mixture of irony and straight-faced honesty--is her strength here. From the first sentence of the novel, readers get this: "By the time Marylou Ahearn finally moved into the little ranch house in Tallahassee, she'd spent countless hours trying to come up with the best way to kill Wilson Spriggs."

Stuckey-French wastes no time to throw the reader into this quirky and twisted world of radioactive experiments, dead babies, and broken families. The nuclear family of Ahern's target--Wilson Spriggs the grandfather, with his daughter's (a menopausal train wreck) family (the Witherspoons): her husband (a cheating professional test grader), and their children (two with Aspergers, one who has an overactive schedule)--becomes symbolic of how such ideals are foolish, that no such thing exists. Setting up the family, Stuckey-French, like Marylou, like other character trying to reclaim a past they never had, is bent to make them fall apart.

Perhaps a strength here is that we see it fall apart in so many directions. Each chapter is devoted to a member of the family and it is through their lens of vision that we see the things that they don't and it is through this omniscient ability of the reader that we see an evitable destruction of a nuclear family--any nuclear family--any family.

The ironic coupling of a model nuclear family and a family on destruction as presented here is not mutually exclusive. The Witherspoon are both. As Ava, the older daughter thinks, "Why did the good and the bad have to come together? It seem often, that they did." In the end the Witherspoon family, while falling apart is neither bad nor good. Each character has their fun quirks that make them likable--Ava's Elvis obsession, Vic's want to become a better father, Marylou's eventual inability to do the task she sets to do. The multiple point of view works well.

Yet as a novel, the strategy works against it too. As a whole work, the book acts like a puzzle. Something happens in one scene, we don't know the full story until the next chapter. Suspenseful in a way, but the bigger picture is lost. Readers are left with too many voices, too many perspectives. The unserious tone of the novel make the work seem less important, rendering  strategy of the masterpiece of so many voices (because a masterpiece needs to span voices!) It leaves the work like a puzzle that is quite hard, but not impossible, yet one has to ask, why do so much work on such a fun novel?

The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady is a fun novel. The writing is compared to Carl Hiaasen, and like Carl Hiaasen, Stuckey-French does try to discuss major issues: family, forgiveness, history. Yet, how much of this is lost in the jigsaw pieces, in a happy ending that borders on cliche and parody? Stuckey-French attempts to go beyond camp, but ultimately returns to the rules of the contemporary novel.

Also, what's the point of a radioactive lady is she has no powers?

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