Dysfunction Junction

Atkinson Gives Us Another Unforgettable Family.

Emotionally Weird, By Kate Atkinson. Picador USA, Hardcover, $25.

FAMILY, IN KATE Atkinson's fictional world, is synonymous with trouble. Families plainly don't work well, and more often than not become fronts for painfully tragic secrets. In her third novel, Emotionally Weird, Atkinson tells (or rather has her characters tell) the tale of a family "as jumbled as the most jumbled box of biscuits that ever graced a grocer's shelf." And it's not only the family that's jumbled. Language, time and reality all take on a suspicious tilt as Atkinson unravels the secret lives of Nora and Effie. But in the unforgettable words of Matt Groening, Atkinson knows how to put the "fun in dysfunctional," and does so with graceful wit and dazzling language.

Sole inhabitants of a western Scottish isle, Nora and Effie (possibly mother and daughter) decide to "wrap (themselves) in shawls and blankets like a pair of old, cold-boned spinsters (Euphemia and Eleanora) and sit by the crackling flames of a driftwood fire and spin (their) stories." The year is 1972. Effie, an English major at Dundee University, has long wondered at her migratory upbringing with Nora, "flitting from one English seaside town to the next as if she was in the grip of some strange cartographical compulsion to trace the coastline step by step." Effie's own life in Dundee has recently taken a mysterious turn itself.

Effie shares an apartment in Dundee with her loveless boyfriend, Bob. Bob, whose heroes are Mickey Dolenz of the Monkees and Fritz the Cat, bounces in and out of the narrative like a yo-yo, an object indicative of his emotional depth. Poor Bob becomes a bore. Effie, however, makes a serious attempt at attending classes, which in this small university town leads her to various encounters in and out of school with structuralist, feminist and Alzheimerish professors, all of whom (along with most of the students) seem to be writing some incomprehensible piece of important literature.

Obviously a child of the '70s herself, Atkinson pegs this period to a tee. Many of the students experiment in communal living at Balniddrie, a country farm once home to a wizard famous for turning seven sisters into stone. Here differently stoned young people eat appalling homemade food such as goat yogurt "separated into gelatinous curds and a thin wershy whey" flavored with sour elderberry jam that "had retained a lot of the little twiggy branches," while they argue the reality of Star Trek and the benefits of breastfeeding. Atkinson may carry on this sequence overly long, but those who experienced this kind of life should find the portrayal hilariously right on target.

Effie's story eventually leads to some of the magical realism that Atkinson loves. In an earlier interview Atkinson, who herself holds a Ph.D. in the American short story, speaks of her affinity with postmodernists of the '60s, especially Barthelme and Coover. While the magical realist aspects of Atkinson's novels may not be the most effective part of her writing, it is usually balanced by the wrenching emotions she evokes.

Though unfortunately the briefest aspect of the novel, Nora's story far outshines Effie's in the exposition of emotions and holding the readers' interest. At times it seems that only the promise of Nora's tale, revealed in bits and starts, entices the readers through Effie's long and clever Dundee days. From the Stuart-Murray lineage that can be traced back to Mary, Queen of Scots, Nora tells of the parents Donald and Marjorie, a father too old to be "particularly interested in his children" and a mother who early on "resorted to the comfort of a gin bottle." These two teamed together to spawn evil incarnate: Lachlan, the heartless wastrel son, and the first Euphemia, Effie's namesake, a "spiteful sprite, a malevolent kelpie" that "came from some dark underground place."

Nora tells of murder, incest and suicide. Familial troubles led Nora to flee with Effie shortly after her birth and have kept her running ever since. As Nora fills in Effie's past, so do Effie's experiences solve Nora's problems. The mother-daughter confessional session benefits each and allows each of them to go on to their respective lives. "Is everything to be tidied up and explained in this part of the story?" asks Effie. The answer given is "Yes."

Atkinson may tidy up and explain too completely, but Nora's story is worth the chase. The two threads of narrative only mesh with a sometimes awkward manipulation, but they are so divergent that even this seems a worthy accomplishment.

Atkinson's first work, Behind the Scenes at the Museum, won a Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and her second achieved much positive critical acclaim. Although Emotionally Weird may not be of quite the same caliber, it portrays another dysfunctional family that won't be easily forgotten.