Kira Henehan’s debut novel, Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles, is an exercise in what you might call straight-faced psychedelia. It’s a detective novel, but any Sherlock Holmes-style sleuthing on the reader’s part will inevitably come to naught. Here, evidence is hard to recognize. The narrator, a woman named Finley, is a patently self-deluded amnesiac. And the world the book takes place in is so off-kilter that nothing can be safely assumed. For instance, the action is set in a region composed entirely of gravel, metres and metres deep; dozens of abandoned golf carts dot the bumpy landscape. The weirdness of these things is not remarked upon.
Is any of this stuff significant to the mystery—something involving a bowling alley, a community theatre production of Lolita, and eerily lifelike finger-sized puppets? Not particularly. In this book, the question “why?” is seldom asked, and never answered. Henehan is not interested in causes, only effects.
This isn’t necessarily a complaint. After all, every book teaches you how to read it, and Orion rarely feels like it’s escaped from the author’s loopy-but-singular vision. In other words, the chaos is controlled; whether it’s satisfying is another matter.
The book functions as Finley’s official report about this particular mission, and she tries her very best to be rigorous and objective at all times. She’s a real stickler, to her boss (Binelli) and co-workers’ (Murphy, The Lamb) unending chagrin. There are a bunch of reasons this turns out to be an impossible task, but the main trouble is that Finley tries so hard to be thorough that she ends up including all sorts of useless details. This is the Tristram Shandy paradox: in trying to describe everything, Finley ends up describing nothing. Pretty soon her supposedly air-tight report has lapsed into tangents, guesswork, and strings of long, completely imaginary flashbacks.
Still, she maintains a professional tone—“for this is not after all a traipse through a meandering wood nor a lark through a bubbling brook but a report, in fact, digressions notwithstanding.”
Finley herself is a thoroughly likable concoction, mixing feminine wiliness with a martian’s lack of social grace. To her, every conversational silence is a battle of endurance. She carries a spray bottle with her at all times, because she knows men are attracted to “an overall sense of just-having-lifted-oneself-from-a-dip-in-the-lake dampness.” At the same time, her memory loss—she remembers nothing of her life before Binelli recruited her, and only retains vestigial hatreds of Russians and a girl wearing blue—makes her a fundamentally tragic figure. She has a head of unappealingly red hair and, for some reason, yellow eyes. We root and mourn for Finley in equal doses.
Orion as a whole is a similar blend of comic absurdism and inscrutable logic. It’s plenty of fun to get swept up in the current, but I’m not sure you come away with all that much once the ride is over. In the end, Henehan’s most hard-won success might actually work against the book’s efficacy: by so thoroughly cutting ties to the world as we experience it, she’s crafted a replacement that we’re not all that invested in. It’s almost too easy to wave goodbye.
Milkweed Editions, 272 pp., $19.50, paperback
(review also appeared in Vue Weekly, July 15, 2010)Jul 11, 2010