Book review: Jessica Hagedorn’s “Toxicology”

Way back in 2007, I got to have my copy of “Dogeaters” signed by Jessica Hagedorn herself. She was in the country at the time to watch the first staging of the play that was adapted from her critically-acclaimed first novel, and I was lucky enough that my editor sent me to cover it.

From what I can remember of that short meeting, Jessica Hagedorn seemed like that cool aunt whose visits you always looked forward to. Her hair was spiky with blonde highlights at the time, and the think eyeliner she had on only reinforced that impression.

I had a less favorable regard for “Dogeaters” though, mostly stemming from the fact that I read it as a college sophomore and I found her short, quick-fire sentences to be exhausting to read. I was — still am — a big Nick Joaquin fan at the time, and I loved me some commas and semicolons.

Ten years after “Dogeaters”, Jessica Hagedorn is back with another novel. “Toxicology”, which tells the story of Mimi Smith and Eleanor Delacroix, two women who find their lives increasingly intertwined as they succumb to addiction and obscurity.

Mimi Smith and Eleanor Delacroix are neighbors in a crumbling tenement in Manhattan’s West Village, contemplating the equally derelict state of their respective careers. Mimi the filmmaker has never really made another movie besides her low-budget horror movie, “Blood Wedding”; Eleanor is a novelist in her 80s who is only remembered for her scandalous debut novel, “Little Deaths”, about a lesbian love affair that ends with murder. Both are hopelessly addicted to cocaine and alcohol.

Though the two have had interactions before, it is the disappearance of Mimi’s cousin Agnes that really truly bring them together. As Mimi makes a trek to her loopy brother Carmelo’s apartment – a hovel filled with serials, publications, and memorabilia that Carmelo has compulsively hoarded – her estranged daughter Violet stops by and spends the night in Eleanor’s apartment.

That night spent with Mimi’s daughter pushes the normally reclusive Eleanor to invite the mother and daughter to dinner, which results into a tense confrontation that – while not exactly providing a resolution – spurs the two stagnating artists towards something close to forward movement.

Anyone familiar with Hagedorn’s work knows that plot and a linear narrative rarely figure in her work, and “Toxicology” is no different. The narrative seems like some addict’s hallucinogen-induced dream, with characters and motivation floating in and out like so much effluvia.

It’s easy for some readers to feel lost in such a narrative and give up. Thankfully, Hagedorn populates her feverish landscape with larger-than-life characters that are interesting enough to propel readers forward and through the novel’s 225 pages. Characters like Carmelo and Agnes capture the readers imagination and provide an anchor to a story that sometimes finds itself meandering listlessly like an addict looking for his next hit.

Eleanor Delacroix is also an inspired creation, fearless and flawed at the same time. It is when the novel looks back on Eleanor’s life and career that it is at its best. Hagedorn brings us to a small town in Mexico where Eleanor meets the love of her life, Yvonne Wilder, and paints a scene of tense beauty as the two characters discuss sex and primal animals in front a setting sun.

However, readers will have to sift for these gems among some of the more tedious elements of the book.

Mimi is not a particularly charismatic character, and it is a bit unfortunate that she is the one that opens the story for readers. It’s hard to see the genius everyone seems to see in her, as Hagedorn has not written her as clearly and as beautifully as she has written Eleanor. The fact that Eleanor takes over halfway through the book will probably be a welcome change for readers.

People who like their stories with a clear direction and with tidy resolutions may also find the book’s more unconventional elements a bit daunting, and slogging their way through more than 200 pages of it may prove to be more agonizing than exhilarating. The novel’s final quarter, where it turns into “The Volga Review”, might be the final straw for a reader just looking for a beginning, middle, and an end.

However, those who like a little more challenge in their reading material may find “Toxicology” a bit more to their taste. While it doesn’t quite reach the heights scaled by “Dogeaters”, the reflections on art, fame, and the artist’s creative process that “Toxicology” presents to its readers are tough enough bones to chew on.

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