Darwinian Confusions, And Other Lesser Crimes

This is a book that people will find cute and charming—or it’s a book they’ll find cloying and false and illiterate. Since it comes garlanded in endorsements from accomplished writers and a movie star, too (Lucinda Rosenfeld, Nell Freudenberger, Sam Lipsyte—and Claire Danes), I expect many reviewers to go for option No. 1 and not say that the emperor (Jewish princess?) has no clothes, or that she’s wearing only a diaphanous thong. And I have to wonder: Did Ms. Freudenberger et al. blurb the novel because the author’s day job is movie producer? As I stumbled through the obstacle course of Galt Niederhoffer’s sentences, I thought: How did she get into Harvard, much less through it? (Her alma mater is proclaimed on the book’s back flap.) It makes me want to say, shaking my head in bewilderment, like Mr. Tulliver in The Mill on the Floss, “this world’s too many for me.”

The Barnacles of the title are not mollusks but a human family, originally Baranski, consisting of six sisters; their father, “New York’s Pantyhose Prince”; their mother, who lives upstairs with an adopted son; and a much younger stepmother. The Barnacles are rich. All of them, except the adopted son, have names that begin with B; and, like the protagonists of fairy tales, each is bestowed with extraordinary and superlative abilities and traits, such as “hearing better than some wolves”—but not the poor second wife, about whom little is said, all of it derogatory.

Barry and Bella Barnacle divorced because he’s an adulterer, but also because they disagree about heredity: He believes in nurture (though there’s no nurturing as such going on in this household, where one-upmanship reigns), she in nature. His beliefs are presented as Darwinism and manifested in the collections that fill entire rooms of their gigantic Fifth Avenue apartment: a jungle habitat, complete with bats and other wildlife, and a vast assortment of shells, etc., including barnacles, like those Darwin studied.

The six daughters share three rooms, the idea being to spur competition and a work ethic. The girls, ranging in age from 10 to 29, certainly are scheming, suspicious, jealous and self-interested. They’re said to be so varied as to hardly seem like sisters—but as written, they seem so much the same that little besides hair color or object of obsession distinguishes them. Each is obsessed with a different means to the same end: besting her siblings. (One sister, who gets only mere paragraphs among pages, may be an exception, but not so it matters.)

About a third of the way through the novel, Barry sets up a weeklong contest among the girls to decide who will best carry on the Barnacle name—and inherit his fortune. The contest is touted in the publisher’s press release and the advance reviews, but most of what happens in the book concerns the two eldest girls, Bell and Bridget, and their elaborate subterfuges to hook the WASP-y identical twins from the next apartment, Blaine and Billy Finch. (Darwin ultimately used finches rather than barnacles to demonstrate the processes of evolution.)

Bridget, the beauty of the bunch, has for years—since he wooed and dumped her—carried on a bantering game in which she and Billy set ideal or ridiculous scenes for marriage proposals; while Bell, who was also courted and dumped years before, but by Blaine, also now wants to marry her chosen twin: She’s pregnant, father unknown—she was too drunk to notice. (Abortion seems to have become illegal in fiction. The anti-choice folk must be the only ones left who think they haven’t won.)

The tale is narrated in a grand, lofty tone, as of a 19th-century taxonomist (or, more logically, ethologist) recording the behavior of species knowable only from observation rather than empathy and experience. The events are minuscule, greatly elaborated on and without consequence. If there were consequences, and if the tone were carried off with flair, the strategy might work.

Unfortunately, Ms. Niederhoffer never uses one word where three will do, and often uses them wrong. A sampling: One sister “receded back”; another “eschewed … facets” (one can only wonder how it was done, but people eschew like mad in these pages); again and again, “hateful” is used to mean full of hate rather than, as the dictionary has it, deserving of it; people “hone” in on things as I could only wish the author would hone her prose; they “sprout” loyalty; a film of grime “foretold” an aversion to showers; someone yearns “gradually”; a monkey’s tail is “stumped” (unlikely on two counts, since it’s neither docked nor could it be unable to work out a problem); something is “already intact”; the sisters are spurred to “conquer into three teams.”

I could go on, but you don’t really want me to, do you? And I’ve only gotten to page 53. I won’t go into the maladroit punctuation; with the profusion of typos, the suspicion grew that I wasn’t dealing with Joycean linguistic innovation and that, just possibly, no one had actually read the book besides me, including the author.

If she’d reread, wouldn’t she have noticed that if the Barnacle and Finch apartments share the top floor, Bella’s apartment couldn’t be upstairs? (It’s not only upstairs, but in “the edifice of the building.”) On page 59, the rules of the proposal game are that the words “will you marry me” cannot be spoken, but if they are, they cannot be “reversed”; on page 91 those words are spoken—and yet, for the next 276 pages, Bridget longs for Billy to want to marry her. If Billy and Blaine have the mutual telepathy attributed to them, why is their relationship plagued by secrets? And if Billy and Bridget have the telepathy alleged for them, why does Bridget spend 267 pages in the indignation, taunting, bluffing and second-guessing that constitute most of the book’s action?

And all this is quite aside from a basic confusion between nature-versus-nurture (shorthand for the debate about what determines individual personality and behavior) and Darwinism, which is concerned with biological adaptations over generations that, through breeding, physically change whole species. The author seems unaware that what Barry promotes isn’t a scientific theory but more like social Darwinism, a metaphor taken from science, or science misunderstood—but then again, the author ascribes feathers to bats.

I don’t ordinarily write mean reviews, especially of first novels. If this one hadn’t come with impressive endorsements and publicity behind it, I would have let it pass in silence. As it is, I feel compelled to flag the false advertising—anything to slow the spread of the kind of virus Lynne Truss has raged about, a pandemic that decimates language and meaning, that elevates intent and pretense over achievement. It’s the kind of virus that could wipe out literature, because no one would have the means either to produce good writing or distinguish it.

Anna Shapiro’s third novel, Living on Air, will be published by Soho Press in May. Darwinian Confusions, And Other Lesser Crimes