(San Francisco, CA: Outpost19, 2017)
Vee is not adept at interpersonal connection, but she’s at a birthday party anyway for her nephew, Charlie. She has bought him a toy dinosaur and it’s sitting in a box that she can’t put down anywhere because there’s no place for presents. “’This isn’t a present party, honey,’” one of the guests says, and she doesn’t get a more detailed response until her sister, Pam, tells her: “’We want Charlie to understand that the real gifts are family, friends and fellowship, not gross material possessions.’” The eye-roll-worthy event consists of tow-headed children, “the whole of Pam’s social circle blindingly white,” and is held on what Pam and her husband, Geoff, call “The Family Farm,” a backyard of staggering, forest-like greenery “whose layout of garden beds seems designed to frustrate.” It’s filled with microgreens, chards, sunflowers, and chickens surrounded by sloping bushes and winding, shrub-filled paths. It’s Pam’s brain child, who inherited her mother’s green thumb, unlike Vee, the black sheep, whom Pam calls “’the consumer.’” (A comment that Vee refers to as “a Marxist-fat joke.”)
Yet it’s Vee’s eyes we see life through, and it’s a life we know well – with tech bros and artisanal cocktails and geotagging and beards. But here, in Kevin Allardice’s darkly charming new novel Family Genus Species, clever observations of weight and whiteness blend in with a dystopic backdrop: the world outside of the farm, where protestors are marching.
Vee, or Colleen before she re-named herself “Vee,” is as unlikely a heroine as a heroine can get. She can’t state her needs, and she fumbles for words whenever she is insulted and wants to articulate a comeback. She is awkward and strange and has generally bad ideas, like offering the party-children a marijuana bowl in her pocket if they successfully help her find Charlie in the yard. She longs to move backward, towards a more Jurassic period, the toy dinosaur she bought Charlie representative of her hesitance to fully enter adulthood. As the narrative voice muses, deep inside of Vee’s mind,
Fear and hunger seem indistinguishable in the actions of children, their proximity to the primordial soup of their in-vitro existence meaning their bodies know more than hers the primal sameness of all self-preserving expressions. Come to think of it, that’s why she likes getting high, drunk, what-have-you…as when intoxicated the barrier between emotion and sensation reveals itself as porous at best, everything simply an expression of some vital urge. Laugh, cry, fuck.
But the honesty of her perspective is refreshing, and Vee herself is refreshing, in all her silly awkwardness and bizarre gut-instincts. She is science-minded, dropping casual factoids about the radioactivity of Berkelium, and even skilled enough to figure out how to make hand sanitizer explode. She is a delightful, facetious lens to experience the story through, at one point bemoaning a childcare brand called “Mommy’s Little Helper” as a “purely practical and utilitarian leash with which to keep your kid in heel, rather than the Valium of the Stones song.” She is thoughtful about her surroundings and the way others treat her, one of the focal points being her experience as a plus-sized woman. “To be a dude, it seems,” the narrative voice muses, “is to never question your ownership and manipulation of your body.”
This is the Vee that few at the party can see, as most seem cut from a very different cloth. Vee is perhaps more aligned with the protestors who, from the sidelines and at a distance, frame the narrative’s movement. We see Vee on her drive to the party, chanting with them as they congest the streets: “They were painting the names of the dead onto the walls of the city buildings, until they ran out of room and they began painting the names of the dead onto all the walls everywhere.” Vee rolls her window down to hear them chanting on the downbeat of “we,” while holding herself separate from their anger, in what she deems fairness: “here was a despair wholly inaccessible to her, and to attempt to fit herself into it was to do a violence to that anger, to its rightness and sanctity.”
It is this anger that the unraveling of the story is born out of, an undertow that permeates the jolly party it takes place in. When reading this novel, it is clear that the edifices inside it are crumbling, dying from the outside-in, and the characters can’t have (or keep) what they want. For the party guests, it’s comfort, cozy beers and cheerful sarcasm. For Vee, it’s the ability to bond with another living person: “She could say that she just wants, once, to do this thing that everyone else does so promiscuously: to make a single, small, transitory connection.”
We see symbolic government and tyranny inside of the yard: Pam, an evil Queen who discovers Vee’s marijuana bowl in a child’s possession, proclaims, “I want her head on a spike.” We meet a chicken named Roosevelt, see the capitalistic instincts of children, and watch Vee as she gets drunk and falls apart like the world around her. We follow her through her objective, the sharp point of the story: to give Charlie his present at any and all costs.
She needs to get to him, properly give him the gift, tell him about it, forge the connections that are a given for Pam – those signals in their DNA that scream survival is dependent on our mutual love – but for which Vee has to work, work hard. While everyone else rests on the privilege of instinct and all it’s coded to do, Vee, as she’s only recently learned, has to do it all her own damn self.
And like an exercise in method acting where the scene is deliberately made longer, we see her objective get harder as Charlie goes missing, as Pam sends guests to hunt her, as the garden bursts into flames and she’s forced to hide.
Family Genus Species is a novel about structures, physical ones like urban gardens and inner ones born from trauma. It’s a whip-smart tale of a simple, singular desire that snowballs into destruction and takes all the structures with it. With sadness at the core, it pokes fun at its surroundings, creating a comedic catharsis that helps us swallow the present inside of it. Perhaps above all, it is a sad tale, but one we’re invited to enjoy, because pieces of Vee live in all of us and she eventually discovers her voice.
Allardice has created a truly genuine story that we can all read, cautiously, to find the ironies of our lives.
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Gloria Beth Amodeo‘s fiction, reviews, and interviews have appeared in H.O.W. Journal, Publisher’s Weekly, The Literary Review, Bort Quarterly and elsewhere. She is a graduate of The New School’s MFA Creative Writing Program and lives in Brooklyn.